Friday, May 22, 2009

Charles O. Hartman: New & Selected Poems

Charles O. Hartman
New & Selected Poems

Review by Michael T. Young

I happily discovered this poet through Facebook. The Ahsahta Press sent a publication notice for his New & Selected Poems along with one sample poem. The sample poem was short, but stimulating, a poem that, as a poet myself, I thought after reading it, “I wish I had written that.” Consequently, I ordered his New & Selected Poems and am truly glad to have encountered this poet’s intelligence.

He is a jazzy sensibility. This is clear in the variety of his forms. He seems to endlessly experiment. His poems range from metrical to free verse to prose poems. You can see stylistic undercurrents from such diverse sources as William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Patchen and Francis Ponge, which is not to say these are direct models, but simply atavistic ancestors. You hear them faintly, in the distance, since Hartman makes the forms his own, extending them, working them into his personal vision and exploration of meaning. In each form he shows himself capable of transforming his material into the search for the limits of what might be said. However, testing these boundaries always carries risks that few ever escape all the time.

Sometimes his poems lose their emotional tie, lose the sense of a definite speaker and become simply linguistic artifacts. These perhaps result from struggling too hard to reach his end. But at his best, when he allows his instinct to carry him a little of the way, these ties hold and thread together his deep curiosity, his intelligent wanderings and make for sometimes unexpectedly moving poems. Such startling examples are “Over a Cup of Tea,” “Joinery,” “The Theory of Sunday,” and “Landscape with Marmots: Quasimodo Unstraps His Hump.” Such extremes in his work come from his daring, his willingness to take risks, exploring the boundaries of meaning as other poets such as James Tate, John Ashbery or Marvin Bell. For Hartman, this exploration is bound up with the vague landscapes of memory and the fragile constructions of the self, both of which are not solid, but fluid, a movement rather than an object. As he says in “The Long View,” “Who we are is where we have been going.” Memory and identity are verbs, not nouns and time in this context is part of a puzzle that is perpetually constructed by the attentive intelligence. “Time is pieces to adjust” he says in “The Lens.” Because of this fluidity the self that suffers the flux has a singularly important lesson to learn: compassion. As much as Hartman’s poems are full of risk and experimentation, they are also full of forgiveness. Rather than suffering making us stronger, it has instead the potential to make us more understanding, more accepting.

We for whom the hardest lesson is that no virtue
inheres in being uncomfortable or unhappy
may suffer on a day like this
the vertigo of a stair missed in the dark.

Easier to offer thanks for the afternoon
once we know we could not deserve it,
as when the hunter with the groundhog in his sights
decides gracefully never to have existed.
(“Landscape with Marmots: Quasimodo Unstraps His Hump”)

It is the willingness to go on in the common effort beyond our endless error.

Having made
errors of all kinds, we have learned one another

approximately. We feel our way between two mysteries
into a third. Night rises, and with a common motion we gather in
each other, all we can hold.
(“Over a Cup of Tea”)

This is an intelligence striving to accept its own limits and extend that as grace, a mind creating a kind of faith by the power of its imagination. We do what we can with the limits of our minds and hearts. We struggle toward each other and always failing, accept and hold what we can of the approximations we make of each other’s presence. So, if Hartman’s poems sometimes get lost in their own discourse, it is only because they are like these approximations, which are ultimately believable and beautiful in their efforts and rhythms, delightfully intelligent in their experimentation and exploration.

New & Selected Poems was published by Ashatha Press in 2008.

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