“Almost as suddenly, I thought of all the important lines by others that have stayed with me through the years: ‘You must change your life’ (Rilke), ‘How soon unaccountable I became’ (Whitman), ‘practice losing farther losing faster’ (Bishop), ‘I have promises to keep’ (Frost), and so many others. I made a list of these well-known lines (probably 50 or more). I thought of them as touchpoints in my own thinking. I thought of each as a ‘watermark,’ remembering how, in a book arts course I took years ago, handmade paper often held a ‘watermark,’ the evidence of its maker hidden within the paper and visible when held up to the light. The spiritual implications of that idea interested me. I have often said that we are ‘worded into existence’ by the language that matters to us, and my collection Watermark attempts to honor many of the central phrases and lines that have shaped how I move through the world.”—By Jeff Hardin
By Claire Bateman
GREENVILLE South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 February 2023—Poet Jeff Hardin is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Watermark, A Clearing Space in the Middle of Being, and No Other Kind of World. His work has been honored with the Nicholas Roerich Prize, the Donald Justice Prize, and the X. J. Kennedy Prize. Recent poems appear in The Southern Review, The Laurel Review, Literary Matters, Zone 3, The Cortland Review, Cumberland River Review, Southern Poetry Review, and many others. Hardin lives and teaches in Tennessee.
About his book Watermark, Hardin writes: “In 2004, I had this idea that I would find phrases from failed poems of mine and use them as titles for new poems. When I wrote the first line (‘How quiet must I be’) at the top of a page, I suddenly thought of an x/y axis from math classes, so I turned the statement vertically and visibly down the left-hand margin. I began stitching my new lines back through each word of this five-word statement as if I were anchoring myself to a whispered prayer, or a subliminal message, back behind my thinking, perhaps not even noticeable on a first reading.
“Almost as suddenly, I thought of all the important lines by others that have stayed with me through the years: ‘You must change your life’ (Rilke), ‘How soon unaccountable I became’ (Whitman), ‘practice losing farther losing faster’ (Bishop), ‘I have promises to keep’ (Frost), and so many others. I made a list of these well-known lines (probably 50 or more). I thought of them as touchpoints in my own thinking. I thought of each as a ‘watermark,’ remembering how, in a book arts course I took years ago, handmade paper often held a ‘watermark,’ the evidence of its maker hidden within the paper and visible when held up to the light. The spiritual implications of that idea interested me. I have often said that we are ‘worded into existence’ by the language that matters to us, and my collection Watermark attempts to honor many of the central phrases and lines that have shaped how I move through the world.”
Surrounded by Vast Silence and Time
Practice doesn’t make perfect, if what one is after is the shape of thought, how it shimmers and stretches and cannot lie still. Better to trace the lightning down the night’s wide walls, losing its motion to the mirroring of memory. Pointless? I suppose. Absurd as a daisy on the day of one’s death? Maybe, maybe not— yet always there’s this self that wants to go farther, deeper, truer, a few steps out past the edge of itself to see what, if anything, will hold it aloft. Maybe nothing will, only the sense that one is losing a voice that might have mattered once on a day whose importance has likewise fallen away. Something in the way a prayer begins earnestly, imploringly, only to move faster and faster through the vast silence surrounding it until time and its timelessness begin to encroach, gathering the words, touching all sides then letting them fall.
Point of Origin
In the cool after rain passes through, the sky
to the west is a shade of purple never seen before.
So what if I exaggerate—I do so out of reckless awe.
From the first note, the harp lives in denouement.
One’s life preceding seems only rising action.
The flute makes an interlude between two breaths.
My own point of origin involved a wheelbarrow
full of rocks to wheel out past the barn’s bent shadow.
Sometimes, though, I knelt down where a doe had stood.
Home from school, I followed my Papaw from woodshed
to hog-trough to feed barrel to woods trail out back.
Evenings on the porch, we sat barefooted and sang to the stars.
I figure whatever fortune I had was just about as much
as I could bear. I lay on pine needles; I sampled wild plums—
cast here and there, I’ve held on tight to the bones of the wind.
This poem previously appeared in Generosity for a Later Generation (Seven Kitchens Press, 2021).
A Familiar Street
is no longer itself. Its constitution has changed.
Certain oaks—immense, iconic—have been
removed, the sky’s endlessness bent to touch
bare earth. A generation of teachers, file clerks,
shopkeepers, mechanics, and hairdressers
drifted elsewhere, carried along on unseen
currents. Other conclusions must now be
reached, considered, examined, ascertained.
A new language must be invented to think
upon a language that once presided over
imagination’s purposes. A white Victorian
is now yellow stucco. Upon what guidebook
should we rely? Perhaps new psalms must
be composed, more hallowed proverbs, more
anguished lamentations. Academic studies
show an increase in silence, in anonymity,
a decrease in patience, in afternoons of Verdi
wandering a window’s billowy curtains.
Aftermaths are incalculable. No one knows
if another Auschwitz is beginning, accelerating.
Some unknown poet’s lack of concentration
means an image, a metaphor, a clarity of meaning
will not enter another’s conscience, leading
to losses that must be added to all the other
losses we live with unknowingly. Once there
was a childhood—now a cellist, an accountant,
a vagabond, a scholar. A stone has been moved,
not rolled away. Trusted genealogies scatter.
The subject is never the same subject for any
two people. One whisper leads to Christ, another
to someone holding a spear, thrusting it upward.
A Poem Worth Reading
I keep thinking I’ll find a poem worth reading
but find, instead, sadness, rage, complaint—
a voice against which no rebuttal convinces—
and it’s hard to find a poem whose ideas
I want to live inside as one might enter home.
Shouldn’t poems do more, be more, listen
toward moonlight, offer an aperture widening
onto stars, shift the meaning of wingflight,
roofline, a child’s face turning toward an
open window? I want a poem that hears
beyond itself, that seeks a scent it cannot
quite discern, that tastes how winter, how love,
how minus, how brazen, how eucalyptus,
how limitless limitations are. I want a poem
that touches the praying mantis, that traces
the beech tree’s hollowness, that tap-taps
the woodpecker’s throat. So what if its metaphor
stumbles a bit, trying to dance. So what if no
fires were begun or extinguished as the poem
ignited. Imagine being the first to pull a carrot
from the earth, the first to stray from a path,
the first to place a twig on a stream then watch
it wander away. Someone said the word holy
—others must have gathered near to hear its
vowel repeated. What could it mean? What
would its presence enact in the world? Maybe
they were a small group, and the world we’ve
come to know began in how they whispered.
A Time of Difficulty
Did it help that the cardinal fluttered onto the eaves
and grew still for six seconds before rising away
or that somewhere on a stretch of bay, with no one
present, a whale surfaced, lolling, turning, then
dove back into the depths? Days became months.
Down through strata some imaginations lingered,
wishing to see how each part became its own part.
Ten thousand painters in separate dreams of the world,
as if in solidarity, titled their creations “Untitled.”
One we’ll never know gave hers to flames, content
that she had once seen light trace along the edge
of a wilted lily, almost like a caress, though who
would believe her? Sometimes brokenness becomes
the only wholeness granted or believed fully. Some
vanishing points are never known to exist. They
are where they are for as long as they are, whether
or not anyone appears holding a sketchbook or pen,
far from synonyms or antonyms or any other illusion
that how we say it is—or think it is—is how it truly is.