Imagine being the American architect, George Franklin Barber (1854-1915). Your designs for “houses and stores and churches” all fit on hundreds of little cards “threaded together with a length of yarn” to constitute a catalogue of almost infinite possibility. To design a building, a block, or a city entails simply flipping through those many cards of elements and combining them to fit the “light, weather, texture, / of color and climate and season.” Making something new entails, therefore, selecting and choosing among what has come before and bringing it together in a distinct way. It is, as Kathleen Hart tells us in this strange and brilliant book, a matter of cut-and-paste.
The historical Barber, she writes, would murmur the lines of Psalm 104 as he went about his work:
murmuring its lines, never deciding how all
God’s finished work was held together in such
a delicate frame and how every word of it worked
through the hands of the Builder of Everything
That Psalm gives us indeed the Lord as the architect of the universe, and Barber no doubt found sanction for his enterprise in its participation in our God’s own laying of the beams of the heavens. But he found something more, as well. When Barber “would flip / through his most recent catalogue,” he would realize
. . . his best design longed to manifest
the form and the massing of Psalms, which are generous
enough for additions and deletions or revisions and
can adapt to any language or tempo, being propelled,
as they are, by a design which varies and repeats,
a design which is carried out through breath,
which is spirit.
Catholics will perceive the truth of this immediately simply because they are used to hearing the Psalms set and reset to different melodies at every Mass, or the Mass itself whose design is daily carried on the breath of every language in the world. But Barber’s American, Puritan ancestors provide still another precedent, for they, with their scrupulous concern for the literal sense of the original Hebrew took enough liberty to reset it in the rhymed “fourteeners” of English verse in The Bay Psalm Book (1640), which was the first book published in the American colonies, and which would itself be subject to revision and refinement as edition after edition was, as historian Perry Miller once put it, “worn threadbare with use.”
The Puritans’ example testifies to a tenacious fidelity to the original words of David coupled with a no less tenacious pursuit of English words worthy of recitation and song. Barber’s career suggests a similar blend of persistence and adaptability. Hart’s poems as a whole both celebrate and instantiate the truth that human invention creates nothing out of nothing, but rather receives its elements from the past and merely sets them in a new context, combines them into a new whole, or puts them to some new use. As such, human work, like all the works of nature, are first and foremost gifts of divine grace, which we receive and make use of as continuers of God’s creative act.
In the poetry of the distinguished contemporary Catholic poet Helen Pinkerton, we find lyrics that marvel at creation by reminding us that the being of everything is the act of existence given to it by the uncreated but creative God who is his own existence. Her work is unmistakably inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas as interpreted by the great French historian Etienne Gilson. In contrast, Hart’s poems are acts of praise for the borrowing and bricolage that goes on “after” the moment of creation, when human beings draw together the seemingly unrelated elements of the world for some purpose and, as if by accident, reveal the unity and coherence, the delicacy and providential meaning that holds all things together.
In “Brunelleschi’s Dome,” for instance, Hart writes long—indeed breathless—lines that follow her itinerate and associative stream of consciousness from the bus she is riding to a sense of her own failure to make something out of herself, and on to a powerful realization. In response to her sense of failure, she notes,
But that shouldn’t stop me from trying, in the time left to
me, to make beautiful things and to study all that is
well crafted as in the way the Lord lays the foundations of
the Earth and every day tends to them, never giving up on His
We find here a statement of what her poems do. They are above all studies in “all that is / well crafted.” As is the case with these lines, they have an awkward beauty unto themselves, but it is a deliberately prosaic one so that, while they have their proper deliberate craft, it is one of humility rather than self-possession. Like Barber’s architectural catalogue, her style seems to draw attention away from itself and toward the well made things it borrows only for the sake of praising. And so, it is typical of her work that no sooner has she associated her effort at making with the good of craft in general and God’s own archetypal role as the first maker than she directs us away from herself again, to consider some other craftsman who has made something good:
. . . So when Brunelleschi (1377-1446) enters into this
daydream—I’m reading a book called Brunelleschi’s Dome—
I figure him for my guardian angel of structures which do not,
at the moment, exist, but you need, in order to construct your
dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in a way which is wider and
higher than any design has ever accommodated for, up till now.
Brunelleschi has me up to my elbows in pulleys and hoists and
levers and phalanges and values and tolerances and proportions
and symmetries . . .
All of which together she calls “blessings or mechanisms, of words, which I will use to / configure my own assemblage of praise . . .”
Hart’s form of praise is to assemble, to note and document, what others have done. This poem includes a footnoted citation and the end of the book lists the sources in books and newspapers that provided the subject matter, and lines, of many of her poems.
This reminds one of an earlier American poet, Marianne Moore, and in two respects. Moore’s much celebrated work was also written in a flattened or subdued style studded with quotations from sources in her reading. But, also, much of Moore’s poetry was in praise of what she called “gusto,” all that industrious ingenuity and inventiveness as it appears in the forms of wild animals or the activity of diligent workmen and homerun-slugging ball players.
Hart’s flattened, documentary style is especially on display in a poem like “The Greenland Problem,” which begins,
Think how flat the soul is on earth,
distorted as Greenland on a Mercator
projection map, as if someone pressed
it down with a rolling pin and how
Greenland is actually a land of ice
where scientists extract, from long
tubes placed in the permafrost, snow
which fell thousands of years before;
Her Moore-like humility and celebration of the precisions of work is almost always on display, but perhaps “Agecroft Hall” captures it best as interwoven with a thread that is distinctly Hart’s own. “When I feel like a tourist in my own sense of reason / and I seem to have joined the ranks of the misfits, / the drunks, the disturbed,” she begins, and then catalogues a whole range of fears about her life disintegrating, that is to say, falling back into its separate elements from the cobbled-together-whole it has been. She tells us how she copes with this fear: “I call to mind the story of Thomas C. Williams,” which she gives as follows:
How, in 1929, be bought a Tudor manor house built
in Lancashire, England, in the late 17th century. How
Williams had the house broken down, piece by
piece; divided into thousands of crates; and then had
it put back together again in Richmond, Virginia,
making it whole again even in a different century
and in a different country, making it whole again.
In the theology of St. Augustine, we find accounts of our fallen, temporally conditioned human nature as in various ways distended and divided against itself. The human being desires to be whole and to rest in its own fullness, but it cannot do that unless it first gives up its broken self entirely so as to rest in the fullness of God. The trope of self-division, of alienation from one’s own essence such that we are strangers to our souls in a way that God could never be, appears almost as a refrain in his work. Hart’s poetry is also full of such images of being a foreign tourist in one’s own mind, but several of the poems make clear that this is not just a theological principle but a sense, a feeling, an experience, caused by some kind of bipolar disorder.
Hart, as she writes of herself in these poems, is someone with a keen sense of how fragile the unity of ourselves is. But rather than writing a poetry that merely confesses the wounding of falling apart, she draws on that experience in order to perceive with special acuity something that is true not just about her but about all of us and about the world. If all things in nature are borrowings of disparate elements drawn together in often delicate unities, where the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts remain visible nonetheless, then Hart, as someone with a sense of how things fall apart, is especially positioned to celebrate their uncanny coming together in the first place.
Things converge—they enter into “conformation”— out of the bric-a-brac. Houses are founded out of materials reconstructed from alien shores, domes and dwellings emerge out of ingenious mechanical parts and piles of sketches. The engineer, Henry Cooper, makes a lifesaving calculation only because he is plummeting from a bridge and so must calculate what form his body should take if his lungs are not to burst on impact. Survivors, she tells us, “make the best engineers.”
Listening, early one morning, to Vivaldi on a radio station broadcasting from faraway Dallas, as cars pass her on the road and the sun rises, she captures at once the origin of his sonorous music in the ordering of minute parts into a complex pattern and the order of her own life, with “things converging which weren’t supposed to, / things shining and singing . . .”
All Hart’s poems are what may be called ars poetica. They are poems that reveal the innards of their own making so as to reflect on the brilliance of making itself, but they do so not primarily to teach us about how poets, composers, architects, or engineers work at their specialized crafts. They may be poems about the art of poetry, but not for poetry’s sake. To the contrary, the genius of such makers is to make visible to us how fragile and brilliant are the souls and lives we fashion out of borrowed parts from the world God has made. In this sense, we must all be poets if we are to survive; to live is to assemble new wholes from spare parts, and to worship God is to perceive the brilliance of things as new is brought into being out of the old.
Hart therefore wins for us great insight out of suffering, and her poems make virtues out of what we might otherwise take for vices. If one were to answer the great question once posed by the poet J.V. Cunningham, “How Shall the Poem Be Written?” one would not immediately offer Hart’s style as a model for poetry in general. Sometimes, as in her poem about the infamous American charlatan, John R. Brinkley, one begins to feel that the poem is itself just the gathering together of notes and quotations taken from Hart’s reading and that, in consequence, the poem is less than the sum of its parts. (They are, admittedly, very interesting parts.)
But, on the whole, like Moore and Gerard Manley Hopkins before her, she is one of our literature’s great eccentrics who by her own oddities of craft reveals something profound to us about the nature of making and creation in general. As Aquinas and Pinkerton should remind us, the first mystery of being is that there should be something rather than nothing. But Hart has something nearly as important to teach us. Out of the swirling atoms of material creation and the stray thoughts of the spirit new wholes are routinely formed: individual lives and the works of those lives, toiling and groaning to assume the wholeness promised to us by our God.
A Cut-and-Paste Country
by Kathleen Hart
Franciscan University Press, 2016.
104 pp. $14.95.