“The tough-mindedness and technical excellence of these poems demand and deserve discriminating readers.” —Library Journal
Poetry, for me, is where the craft of writing starts. A first collection, The Climbers, appeared 1978 in the University of Pittsburgh Poetry Series and received wide notice. Poems, translations, and reviews have run in publications including Aethlon, Blue Unicorn, Interim, The Listening Eye, Literary Imagination, The Midwest Quarterly, The New Formalist, Orbis, the poetry LETTER, Southern Poetry Review, Western American Literature, Works and others. Work has twice been featured in the occasional anthology Ascent: The Climbing Experience in Word and Image, published by the American Alpine Club.
I work with promising and established poets in the Lawrence Hart Seminars, master classes in the art that continue a family tradition dating to the 1930s. For more on this background, see www.lawrencehart.org. I have taught poetry and prose workshops under the auspices of the Marin Poetry Center, the College of Marin, and the Mammoth Fall Festival of Writing, among others, Since 2009 I have led the discussion group “Reading the Poets” at Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, California.
I am one of three editors of Blue Unicorn, a respected “little” magazine published triquarterly since 1976 in Kensington, California.
In my “day job,” I’m constantly writing about environmental problems and solutions. When I treat these things in poetry, I find myself taking a pessimistic turn. This sonnet grew out of a long-ago visit to my mother’s home country in coastal Oregon. Sitting on a porch beside a rural road, we saw our relatives cheer when a truck came by bearing one enormous log, the yield of an ancient Douglas fir. Even then such trees were rare, and the economy was sagging as decades of rapacious forest management neared their end.
ONE-LOG LOAD: REVISITING COOS COUNTY, OREGON
The old and local hate what they have done
But count on us to like their ruined green.
What trees these are, we say, not having seen
What trees there were before the work began.
And now the mills are shutting, one by one
And those who lived by cutting, strong and clean
Do not take well the end of what they mean:
If one great tree was missed, they want it down.
So out of the dragon-scented woods still roll
The trucks that grate and tremble on the road,
Bearing the sticks, the saplings for the saws,
But now and then (to terrible applause)
The toppled integer, the bleeding bole,
The vast, the unappeasable, the one-log load.
A RELIGIOUS POET?
Somewhat puzzlingly to its agnostic author, The Climbers won praise as a work of religious poetry. The Library Journal remarked: “Religious poetry of the first intensity can still be written: Allen Tate, Geoffrey Hill, and now John Hart have done it.” James Finn Cotter remarked in the Hudson Review, “Hart has the gifts to fashion profound religious verse.” The Yale Review singled out the poem “Elaboration on a line from the Mandean Liturgies” as “an arresting new treatment of an old dilemma: whether Gnostic beliefs can be harmonized with the adept’s inescapable love for ‘Tibil,’ the fallen earthly realm.”
The Mandeans, a Gnostic sect in what is now Iraq, rejected love for this world—the Tibil—and thought its Creator both evil and incompetent. They worshiped another, an “alien” God, in charge of Heaven alone. But in one of their liturgies, a worshiper, summoned to that distant Heaven, protests: “Father, if I come with Thee, who will be guardian in this wide Tibil?” The poem takes off from this point.
ELABORATION ON A LINE FROM THE AMANDAEAN LITURGIES
Often, Father, have I heard
the story of the alien Word.
And I have memorized the odd
adventure of the alien God.
And I have heard the scholars say
the earth will shrivel up one day
and that the base Creator would
have made it ugly, if he could
and that the sun behind the sky
were brighter to be human by.
But if that insect archon meant
to make a world thin and bent
He labored hard on his defeat:
No failure ever so complete
in all the levels’ history
as that attempt to parody
the Ancient Light in something less:
The parody could only bless.
It may be that our native range
was not this planet, tall and strange
and of such beauty as appalls:
But here our our learned allegiance falls.
Father, indeed we ask your grace
to shine an image of your face
upon the awful countenance
of rock, and give it lenience
but on the mountain we remain.
I do not think we would regain
your easy splendor, if we could.
The col is bright where Adam stood
to start the errors of the climb
and we have uses yet for time
and beg of you the gentleness
to leave the climbers in distress.
A later poem takes a perhaps dimmer view:
There is in my country a god
Believed in by a few
Who work him like a soil:
By many trusted without truth or toil.
Our oaths involve him inadvertently.
He lies in all the margins, bleeding quietly.
In churches we depict him with one gill,
The body writhing on the placid nails,
Our old domestic martyr in whose hall
No thinking creature can think long or well.
(The madness of the Christian narrative!
Of all of the accounts that we have made
Of our beginnings and our brokenness
The awkwardest and most improbable.)
And yet I think he suffers, being bled
And handled constantly to satisfy a need
We tell ourselves is love.
Oh Christians, when will you release
Your savior from his service on the Cross?
I cast my single vote for his reprieve.
The figure of Christ nonetheless insinuates himself into this prose-poem, mainly concerned with human impact on the natural world:
We have been a long time coming, out of the camps and corals of the sea; out of the woods we used to hang in, swung by these very hands. The flesh has learned to ruffle up itself, into these mazy lungs of gills and leaves. It’s learned the shapes of killing and desire. From the lizards and the lemurs are we come, with the stench, and the marvelous voices.
And stand here, on this eminence (lit as for departure) accidentally powerful, and small, small: out of the great unguidedness of things. Proud of the brain, bald as a hilltop, from which we sometimes think we see too far. We shall find out, we say, the sequence of the world. Shall explain the atom’s final mockery and spin. Just give us time: we’ll know in time what counsels every shadow.
But all unlooked-for to have grown so hazardous! The death of kinds announces what we are. There is no predator compares to us: they eat the animal, we occupy its place. Benign and treacherous, we stroke the chinless birds.
The other animals are principled: they follow their desire, but only to its limit, which is not far. We, though, lean into our sight as to a blade, nor spare the world our terrible activity. We read. We rob. We wreck. We cure. We kill.
The animals are secular and sane: we only are the sacred and the dangerous. System-breakers, we may break ourselves. Overhead the comets snapped and overturned: the dying constellations.
But what, oh scolders, would you have us do?
We cannot go back the way we came. Cannot return among the named and nameless, to where they are true because there is no choosing. The search for better traps evolved a brain: we have it all to balance out again. And Christ, that primate, has regained the Tree, hung by these very hands.