What We (non)Believe: Reading Poems by Charles Wright, John Burnside, and Kevin Hart

By | 1 November 2014

III. Kevin Hart, ‘The River’

A North American poem in a book mainly set in Brisbane (perhaps recalling Hart’s time as a Fulbright scholar at Stanford). ‘The River’ takes up the themes of silence and language that wind through Hart’s volume. The poem begins in the winter woods with the poet walking a trail and being struck by a radiance that ‘calls each soul by name’ (2). Naming figures prominently in Hart’s poetry. In particular he is concerned with the difficulties of naming the unnamable; how does one speak about that which resists and defies categorization (things like God, death, or sex)? So it is important that in this poem the usual act of naming is reversed. Something larger, a radiance, is calling each soul by name. In the poem these souls become the phenomena of the landscape in images of boughs, snow, and rain:

There is a radiance inside the winter woods
	That calls each soul by name:
Wind in young boughs, trees shaking off thick coats of snow,

The rattle of frozen rain on a barn roof: all these
	Will help you lose your way
And find a silence older than the sky…(1-6)

This journey through sensory phenomena has no definite endpoint. For the poet does not walk to discover some kind of true identity, rather this experience alongside the river leads to self-effacement, the loss of one’s way, the discovery of a silence which ‘makes our being here a murmur only’ (7).

Of course we are travelling alongside mystical theology at this point, those meditations that lead to a forgetting of self in an ecstatic union with the divine. This is particularly evident in the descriptions of losing your way (5), or saying ‘I do not know why I am here’ (12) For example, we could gesture toward St John of the Cross and his instruction to wait in quiet until the soul causes ‘the negation of itself and of all things’1. Hart has himself written on this waiting, and its link to silence:

John of the Cross talks of attending to God in another way, of waiting for him, of waiting in silence for the slightest assurance that there is more than silence, even if it be the merest hint of a quality of silence that surrounds the soul, a silence that is also a calm.2

We have here, like we do in much of Hart’s poetry, a waiting for something that is also the absence of anything (see also ‘The Voice of Brisbane’ for example). This is curious indeed. But even the non-mystical theologians consider kinds of revelation that may work in this manner. It is worth noting, for instance, Karl Barth’s view of the mysterium:

Mysterium signifies not simply the hiddenness of God, but rather His becoming manifest in a hidden, i.e. in a non-apparent way, which gives information not directly but indirectly. Mysterium is the veiling of God in which He meets us by actually unveiling Himself to us : because He will not and cannot unveil Himself to us in any other way than by veiling Himself.3

This is not to argue that ‘The River’ is a poem about God in any straightforward sense. It is far too subtle and guarded to fit that designation. But one could say, given Hart’s theological presuppositions (and given the background humming and silence that accompanies many of the poems in Wicked Heat), that if ‘The River’ does obliquely suggest divine ‘continuo’, then this ‘divinity’ could be something akin to the unveiled veiling of Barth’s mysterium.

Accompanying the poem’s quiet pronunciations of uncertainty is a further consideration of language. Like Wright and Burnside, Hart marries language to the landscape, words becoming the needles of the dead fir trees that the poet finds on his speechless tongue (13-15). But in this consideration of language Hart then gestures toward ‘a calm/ beyond the calm I know’ (16-17). Here it is worth considering Hart’s comments on his poetics in an interview with John Kinsella: ‘[t]here’s a sense in which poetry answers to the absence of the Word, the unique master word that underwrites all other words’4. So for Hart, there is a master word (he is perhaps taking his currency from the word of creation and or the logos of John 1:1-18). Yet, importantly, this word is absent and withdrawn. This makes the job of the poet a kind of response, in faith, to the absent word.

In ‘The River’ we get a glimpse of this faith after the poet confesses his own ignorance of the very words he has spoken into the landscape (‘Not knowing the first thing about them all’ 20). For the poet, the ‘simplest thing’ then becomes the sheer fact that ‘every word said well is praise’ (22). Here is the divine address that undergirds all language. Yet the poem couches this address in apophasis (‘Not knowing…’ 21, ‘Not knowing…’ 22). In a similar way to Burnside, the conduit to an otherworld is dependent upon the negativity of language. The words we use we do not really know (‘spruce, wind, cloud and face’ 19). And (at least for Hart) these words which we do not know echo a final word which we cannot know in a straightforward manner. Therefore it’s not as though language reaches beyond itself to mysteries and transcendence. Rather language is already imprinted with absence, and the shape of this imprint reminds us of a long departed master word.

With such ‘worded absences’ in mind, the emphasis on words in the second half of Hart’s poem is particularly striking: the revealed words that the poet uses to feed his thoughts which have grown ‘slow and weak’ (31); the single word, ‘river, with each I and it dissolved’ (34); the hypothetical words that could be used to describe ‘this strangeness or this light’ (46); the final words ‘that stick to skin – ’ (43). This may be what beautiful inadequacy of language looks like, prised apart by experience and by landscape. Yet there is also a ‘strange light all the way/ That falls between’ any words the poet uses (38-39). So alongside language is the poem’s silence, depicted in the ‘calm/ beyond the calm I know’ (16-17), in words that have dissolved (34) or in the gaps between the poet’s words shortening in the cold landscape (‘I speak in small, slow breaths/ Of evening, cedar, cone and ice’ 40-41). The poem’s concluding dash after the word ‘skin’ means that a reader, in a sense, is left holding this silence, its possibilities and inflections.

So ‘The River,’ an ostensibly simple poem, becomes a curious and complex journey, one in which words and landscape reverse and stretch each other, all against the almost imperceptible background thrum of a silently speaking otherworld. One finds here the earthly transcendence which is also part of Wright’s work: the radiance within the winter woods (1), the strange light that accompanies the returning poet (38). Similarly the uneasy quest for home which characterises Burnside’s poem is also evident in Hart’s piece (27). Like both these poets, Hart also saddles his poem with that fraught relationship between language and something like the sacred. Those words are pronounced and emptied, uttered and dissolving. Those words that gesture within and beyond themselves to something so vast it is beyond tracing out.


You finish your writing. By this stage it is much later in the evening. Your kitchen has become cold. You switch on the gas heater. Somewhere far away a truck is turning onto a dark highway. You think about these three poems on the edges of belief; each anxious about the possibility of transcendence, even alongside the ordinary things of the world; each profoundly aware of the inadequacies of language, those gaps that occur when words meet phenomena; and each presenting a sense of absence and negativity that is inscribed within a strange experience. ‘The gods and their names have disappeared,’ says Wright elsewhere in his book5. But his hands are left holding the husks of religious language. ‘That god of sudden absence/ [may] come from the shadows to meet you’ says Burnside6. And his poetry is always half-cocked, always attentive to the possibility of this absent parousia. ‘There is a calm … that wants to talk,’ according to Hart7. Yet it speaks in silence, in the highest language, a meaning we cannot count.

Tomorrow you will wake. You will make a coffee. You will return to the poetry store with your notes in hand, only to find that both it and the man in the blue suit have disappeared. You will be disappointed but not surprised, and so will return home. You will check an empty mailbox, then prepare for a class. You will carefully learn a Bach prelude on the piano. And much much later you will pick out those various improvised bookmarks from your collection of texts: a postcard, a butter knife, a dried leaf. Then you will close the pages for a while, and hold these objects again, and rest.

  1. St John of the St John of the Cross, ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ in The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church (London: Burns and Oates, 1964), 309 (I.Exposition.i).
  2. Kevin Hart, ‘The Experience of the Kingdom of God,’ in The Experience of God: A Postmodern Response, ed. Kevin Hart and Barbara Wall, Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 80.
  3. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, trans. G. T. Thomson, vol. 1:1 (Edinburgh & New York: T.&T. Clark, 1936), I.5.4.
  4. John Kinsella, ‘Interview with Kevin Hart: Melbourne, 22 October, 1995,’ Salt: On-line 10(1997): 260.
  5. Charles Wright, ‘Sitting at Dusk in the Backyard after the Mondrian Retrospective,’ in Black Zodiac (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).
  6. Burnside, ‘Roads,’ I.60-61
  7. Hart, ‘The River,’ 18.
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