Write me a few of your lines - Chris Hardy

Keats, in an often quoted line said “A thing of beauty is a joy forever/ Its loveliness increases”. I feel this is very true of some poems – not that this is an especially rare feeling to have. Perhaps the biggest and still justified praise I could give to Chirs Hardy is that it is true of many of his poems. One of the perks of being a reviewer is that you get a free volume of the literature that you are reviewing. My middle aged self has now read most of the poems many times. I look forward to many poems improving and expanding when I pick up the volume in my old age. I am not saying that Hardy is an undiscovered Yeats or Eliot. Such people are of course extremely rare. Here though is someone none the less who is excellent at crafting words and beautifully observing themselves and the life around them. Louise Macneice in his famous snow poem talked about the “drunkenness of things being various”. Hardy, although familiar themes crop up in his work teaches us instead about the sobriety of things being various. There is something very spiritual and calm about his attention to detail in most of the poems. Once I had kicked out my green eyed monster I was able to enjoy this sobriety like an ice cool grapefruit juice on a Summers day.

 

There needs though to be a word of warning. The first poem “After Crossing the Mountains” is a rather forbidding gate keeper to the whole collection”. It uses symbols – Mountains, Snow and Ice in a rather generalized majesty that in some ways is similar to early Auden Hardy’s poem is more stark and bitterly spiritual though . Because the poem was so open ended and, unlike most of what follows, unanchored in detail, I was unsure whether the conclusions I had reached about it were the conclusions the poet wished the reader to come to. I thought perhaps Hardy left the poem open ended with the reader left to make up my mind. Although I could “translate” most of the lines of the poem I found it hard to discover its overall heart. It even left me feeling rather stupid – one of the most painful feelings a poem can give.

An example of a poem that is a gem of carefully considered detail and haunting emotion is “No boots in the hall”. The title of the poem is a poem in itself. Does that author mean that there were no boots because those who wore the boots were not there? Does he mean that boots were forbidden in the hall? It would seem both of these are true but the poem is really about the mixing of these questions into the powerful cocktail of boots being forbidden because they were too harsh reminder of the people who were not there. The final four lines get to the heart of the matter beautifully “Their mothers see the father/ in the boys face but / the man is dead / and the boy cannot replace him”. There is no gushing sentimentality about the boy being a special gift to calm the wife down now her husband has died in the trenches. The effect of the death hits the reader like a block of concrete. The only word that is perhaps superfluous is the “but” – or rather perhaps the “but” would be more prominent if it was left out. The cruelty of the death of the soldiers is also alluded to earlier on in the poem in the behaviour of the sons “Swiping each other with nettles/sticks and rocks and laughing/falling into ditches/ and leaping out they run/ through churchyards on their way” The portrayal of death in life is so harsh it is almost refreshing.

Time is a subject that the poet deals with in a graceful and unnerving manner. Especially the author deals well with the “spaghetti” nature of time – how it is not in one neat line but twists and turns into all sorts of odd and strange shapes. The poem “His other half” also is a dark celebration of just how powerful words can be if they are used economically. In the poem someone ends up “looking ahead into the past” after a revelation from someone that they could have married someone else. The poem is also peppered menacingly with images of military men and volcanoes. Menacing images of time twisting and erupting also appear in other poems too. In the final verse of Circe’s Isle there is the line “you cannot undo the past before it happens.” This implies that the past is something that menaces beneath the surface and that it can only be dealt with appropriately when it rises up again”. There are though some more peaceful images of time that are very sober and beautiful. In the poem “The House of Mirrors” the poem talks about “carrying the present/in my pocket/like a gift/go through the doors/ look in the mirrors/watch the roof fade/take my hand/from my pocket/and open it”. The poet is in control and in the final line it is as though the present is some beautiful butterfly that is set free.

The poet is also very expert at describing other people whilst making it clear that he understands this is only his perception on them. In the poem Pharaoh he speaks to someone he knows who has become a father at sixty and the relationship he might have with his child. There is about the poem a great deal of affection – both one suspects from the poet to the father and the son and the father and the son between themselves. The poem ends with a sense of sadness with the child thinking their old father will always be there to protect them. The affection and love involved in the poem though stand out against the sadness. They also in a sense conquer it by not allowing it to have its glib total victory. Although the poet does not directly state it the boy will still love his father when his father has died.

The other poem about other people that works very well is “backhand”. This is another example of a poem where the very title is a poem in itself. It is about a tennis racquet– a device that can be used for a backhand shot. It is also something the poet is told to throw away and doesn't – so he indulges in backhanded behaviour and finally the poet uses the racquet to make a back handed remark of praise – how beautiful and athletic the person whose racquet it is was in their younger days. Like the poem mentioned in the previous paragraph this is a deeply successful poem because it does exactly what it sets out to do without any pretensions of false grandeur.

The poet though does not stop at simply writing about people that he knows. “Write me a few of your lines” is highly effective poem about the life of singer songwriter Fred McDowell who was discovered as a talent in September 1959. The career did not last long and a sense of terrible loss is communicated both by how few words are said and by how carefully chosen those few words are. The final image is of the former star wearing his glimmer suit in his grave. Although the singer songwriter died in what must have been the 1960’s it is a poem that haunts the beginning of the twenty first century with our media’s love of dishing up celebrities for public consumption and then trashing them when they can’t cope with the stress of the situation they find themselves in.

“Short of luck on Short Street” is perhaps a rare example of poem that works less well – mainly because it does little to make the reader rethink the situation it is describing – a life of desperate poverty and hardship. This is something that has and does really happen and it is easy to forget this when myself and many reading this lead materially pampered lives. However the life of poverty has become such a literary cliché that there was the infamous Monty Python sketch with the rich industrialist telling his impoverished literary father “there is more to life then Shakespeare and Keats Dad there is coal and industry”. Various parts of the poem work well “his head croaked like a worn out frog” is an excellent description as is “like a miniature slag heap on legs”. The poverty of communities such as the one that the poet describe desperately need to be set free from the clichés that surround them. The poem the poet writes is not a cliché but neither is it something to make the reader humbly think again. It is in comparison to other poems in the volume that this poem is less good, not in the sense of it being at all a bad poem.

There are many other excellent poems in the collection. Mail to the Moon, Little Stars, and One to Another are just three of these. I urge people strongly to look at this collection with the attention it deserves. Grab one off the poet and buy it. I also urge them to be patient – the best poems take time to give their gifts and do not like being interrogated. If this is done then I feel strongly that many of you, like me will find most of these poems are not just good – but get better and better.

Richard Rickford

Note: Ariadne's Thread published poems of Chris Hardy in issues 3, 5 and 6.

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