Poems of Faith and Memory
Kevin Hart’s Flame Tree selects work from the past quarter of a century that, considered in its totality, suggests a significant voice in Australian poetry. The book is arranged in chronologically sequential chunks rather than by collection, so that we get a sense of the poet’s progression and development in stages, and can see his themes modulating and elaborating themselves as he returns to them at different moments in his life.
Hart is a poet of consistent themes, whose work becomes (in this arrangement) structured around a systematic and co-ordinated series of repetitions. Sometimes consistency becomes insistent, as certain images recur in various contexts to take on new shades of meaning. His fundamental concerns are with the poet’s wonder at the glory of the natural world, and with a gentle questioning and assertion of his own religious faith in the face of experience and perception. In this sense, these are poems of a singular devotion, extending the conventional Romantic deification of nature into the realm of sometimes intensely personal experience.
While Hart is for the most part an accessible and lucid poet, the very nature of his preoccupations can lead to moments of intellectual complexity as the relationship between himself, his world and his faith comes under analysis. In ‘Facing the Pacific At Night’ this relationship comes under a kind of scrutiny akin to that of Modernists like Wallace Stevens:
‘driving east, you are a child again -
The web of names is brushed aside from things.
The ocean’s name is quietly washed away
Revealing the thing itself, an energy,
An elemental life flashing in starlight.
No word can shrink it down to fit the mind,
It is already there between two thoughts,
The darkness in which you travel and arrive,
The nameless one, the surname of all things.
The ‘thingness’ of the ocean, its sublime immensity, suggests its function as an allegory of life, while the poem grapples with the need to tell the untellable, and to somehow transcend in words the limits of words themselves. Hart reveals himself, in these moments, as a belated Romantic poet, sharing a Wordsworthian awe at the grandeur of nature, but not quite as prepared as Wordsworth to bare his soul to it.
His closer influences are twentieth century; Stevens, who I’ve already mentioned, and other American Modernists like Ezra Pound, who appears indirectly in ‘Winter Rain’:
When suddenly that old poem comes to mind
(One that I never cared for until now)
Where Tu Fu writes to his dear friend Li Po,
Regretting the distance that separates them,
And wondering when they will meet again
And argue verse over a cask of wine.
Pound’s loose translation of a Li Po poem, ‘Exile’s Letter’, is alluded to here, its sentiment of distance, longing and regret acting as a register from which Hart’s own emotional range can be measured.
Hart’s recurring motifs include clocks, from ‘The Clocks of Brisbane’ to numerous clocks whose numerals often “fall off” (in ‘The Calm’) or whose hands provide a “motion” by which to measure life (in ‘The Voice of Brisbane’). These clocks may all derive from Robert Frost’s “luminary clock” in “Acquainted with the Night”, a link that affirms Hart’s debts to American Modernism (Hart may indeed be closest in style and manner to Frost), but there’s an echo here too of Ted Hughes’s “clock’s loneliness” in “The Thought Fox”. The preoccupation with measuring time is appropriate to the mood that Hart establishes from his earliest poems, and which persists through to the most recent, which express a sometimes profound nostalgia for moments of youth.
The most recent poems here are sequences that test memory against the mature poet’s ability to control it and compress it into forms that signify. ‘The Little Air’, an intensely autobiographical piece, demonstrates some of the hazards and rewards of such self-reflection, as the poet’s youthful self seems to both mirror and deny the older man:
I was ‘slow’
I heard my mother say with me in tow
Down Heathrow shops. I doodled in the men’s
While she was telling the smelly town,
And wrote KH in half a dozen ways
Then listened to my mother in a daze
Though never met her softly studied frown,
For she was right.
Hart’s English childhood (he was born in Essex, but has spent the bulk of his life in Australia) is here implicitly acknowledged as one source of writing, as the “slow” child writes his own initials on lavatory walls just as the adult KH writes himself into his work. The “slow” child, for the record, is now Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Monash University, Melbourne.
If the majority of these poems are narratives that meditate upon time and the changes it wreaks, Hart is also a forceful writer on death, the other major recurring theme here. His preferred metaphor for human mortality is the shadow, another insistent feature of these poems:
Open your hand
And see the darkness nursed there, see how
Your shadow blossoms,
Your body’s very own black flower.
Not “your shadow rising to meet you” but “fear in a handful of dust”, as T.S. Eliot put it. Sometimes the omnipresence of the shadow of death can push Hart towards an almost Gothic morbidity (”darkness finds / Its foothold in the shadow of a child”, he asserts in “Dispute at Sunrise”) that demonstrates the opposite pole of the poems here that celebrate life. Elsewhere a maudlin and almost desperate tone is achieved, as in “Haranguing Death”, which does so in much the manner of John Donne’s robust attack on the sun in “The Sunne Rising”.
Perhaps the subtlest motif in Flame Tree is the lemon tree in Hart’s garden, which provides a symbol of the unfathomable order of nature combined with the limited rule of culture, and carries along its journey through these poems a trace of the Biblical tree of knowledge, its fruit already tasted. Hart’s poetry repeatedly seeks understanding of the consequences of that primary human transgression, and perhaps finds it in the consolation of the poet’s evident ability to evoke in mere words the natural world.