Book Review: Tara Hart’s The Colors of Absence

Tara Hart

Tara Hart shows her first chapbook.

If the poetry in Tara Hart’s chapbook The Colors of Absence does nothing else, it should impel parents to reach out for their children, remembering to be grateful for the “maddeningly silken sack,” as Hart calls our babies, who may be grown, who may be young, who may be gone. The book is a journey from the erotic encounter, through the loss of an infant, into the bounding joy of a new family with grief at its core.

Close to the beginning of the collection, the poem “Hearing Sirens” plays with the idea of magnetism, of women’s iron-poor blood drawn to the “good girls’ kryptonite” of some men and their lodestones. But soon after the sex ends, the heartbreak begins.

The poem “Miss Stein Shows a Way” echoes the recurring ebbs and clanging rhythms of Gertrude Stein’s repetitious verse in a waterfall of sorrow that flows to the edges of the page, sketching out the blurred grief of losing a baby.

In the Pushcart Prize winning poem “Patronized,” the protagonist’s voice–both weary and sassy with grief–speaks a sincere reaction to the sentimentalized saint on the prayer card given to a mother. That paper rectangle with its pious picture and all it represents is clearly inadequate to ease her pain. The clever word play and religious imagery contrast and blend to create a poem that both cries out in grief and raises a sarcastic protest to sacred comfort.

That tone of down-to-the-bone sadness living in a world of platitudes continues in the poem “No Such Thing,” which mixes the theory of relativity and paintings of nudes to come up with the idea of moving through misery, just getting ourselves out the door in the morning, preferably with clothes on and upright.

We move with the poet through the brightening of her path, as she gives birth to another baby, a boy, and snarls with a “venom fantastic” at the dangerous drivers paying no heed to the new and precious cargo in the car riding home from the hospital in her poem “Bringing Him Home.”

And the giggles strike when the poet writes “This Girl at Four,” speaking about a daughter, aged four and clad in frog boots, packing a pumpkin flashlight and three strawberry candies for adventure.

The protagonist’s cracks mend, her life teems full with new life, another baby, friends. Ultimately, though, the collection’s last poem is one of gratitude toward the lost baby, for that small life that filled the poet’s own and for the power to say what she means about her loss and gain.

Tara Hart chairs the Howard Community College Division of English and World Languages, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Her poems, including “Patronized,” have been published in Little Patuxent Review. For the full text of “Patronized,” see “Saints Alive, It’s a Pushcart Nomination.”

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LPR Nominates Six for Pushcart Prizes

Tara Hart

Tara Hart's poem, first published in the LPR Spirituality issue, appears in the current Pushcart Prize anthology

As a young publication, Little Patuxent Review is more about publishing emerging writers and artists than about winning prizes. Still, toward the end of 2010, one of our contributing editors, Susan Thornton Hobby, nominated Tara Hart’s poem “Patronized,” which appeared in our Summer 2010 Spirituality issue, for a Pushcart Prize and-saints alive!–it won one. Tara’s 20-line poem consequently took its place in the 600-page tome, The Pushcart Prize XXXVI: Best of the Small Presses (2012 Edition).

Emboldened by our success, outgoing editor, Michael R. Clark, and our new editor, Laura Shovan, each nominated three pieces from our Winter and Summer 2011 issues, respectively. We are thus represented by Casey Cooke’s short story “Without,” Ann Eichler Kolakowski’s poem “Unmaking” and Gabriel Welsch’s poem “The Story of a River” from the Winter 2011 Water issue as well as Erin Christian’s short story “God Bless You With Rainbows,” Derrick Weston Brown’s poem “Touched” and Susan Thornton Hobby’s poem “Girl Queen of the Animals” from the Summer 2011 Make Believe issue.

Each year, most of the writers and many of the presses are new to the series. Therefore, we believe that each LPR-nominated piece has a good chance to win a prize and make its way into the next anthology. That each author has a good chance to follow in the footsteps of Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien, Jayne Anne Phillips, Charles Baxter, Andre Dubus, Susan Minot, Mona Simpson, John Irving and Rick Moody, each of whom first gained notice through the Pushcart series. And that Little Patuxent Review can again join the hundreds of outstanding presses represented in each annual Pushcart publication.

Note: If you’d like a look at some of the contributors eligible for future LPR Pushcart nominations, join us this Saturday, January 28, at 2:00 pm at Oliver’s Carriage House in Columbia, MD for the launch reading of the Winter 2012 Social Justice issue.

Concerning Craft: Naomi Thiers

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet first-time contributor, poet Naomi Thiers. Naomi grew up in Pittsburgh but has lived in the Washington, DC area since 1980. In 1993, her first book of poetry, Only The Raw Hands Are Heaven, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House competition. Her poetry, fiction and interviews with writers have been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, Colorado Review and other magazines. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and featured in several anthologies. She works as an editor for Educational Leadership magazine.

Naomi’s poem “Union” appears in the Winter 2011 Water issue of the Little Patuxent Review. It is reprinted here, along with a video of her reading at our launch event.

Naomi Thiers-Union

Looking back at how the poem came about, Naomi writes:

“Union” is an ideal springboard to launch into exploring craft. I wrote it 13 years ago at a different stage of my life, so I almost feel that someone else wrote it. This gives me the emotional distance to talk about the poem yet remember the process clearly—I wrote most of it while walking in Arlington, pondering my marriage. So I have both the objectivity and the recall to crawl back inside the composing.

Walking down the street is a great setup for writing. Something about moving the body rhythmically and letting the stimulation of whatever you see on the street flow in and out of you gets words flowing. For me, a poem usually starts with either a phrase that surfaces in my head á la The Magic Eight Ball or a situation I’m interested in writing about. Sometimes both.

With “Union,” it was both. I was walking up Glebe Road on an errand, thinking about being in a rocky marriage, and decided to write about feeling simultaneously intimate with someone who’s brought me extreme joy and crushed by that connection. The phrase “I have been held in the bowl of your arms” came to me, with an image of a person curled up in open arms, and I knew I had a start.

The second line–“like the earth finally resting from all its labors”–surfaced immediately, again with an image of Earth cradled in hands. I was raised in the church, and I’m sure years of singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” helped this line come into being.

What happened from there on sheds light on how images float in as a poet writes. And how memory, the connotations of words and the subconscious mix it up. Novelist Anne Lamott uses a fantastic metaphor in Bird by Bird: the writer works in a room with a tiny opening in the wall. From time to time, a mysterious creature’s hand appears at this opening and gives the writer a completed passage or a character that this creature has stitched together. The creature is the subconscious, and the writer must wait patiently for it to produce.

Lamott is talking about fiction, but the process is similar for receiving imagery in poetry. After the second line of “Union,” I realized I’d described a condition of deep rest and grace. I waited for something more to appear. My subconscious handed me an image connected to birth. I think this was because of the word “labors.” I was only a few years past giving birth, so memories of the delivery room were fresh. Maybe describing a moment of grace made me instantly think “born again.”

A quick word about form. As phrases and lines came to me, they seemed to naturally fall into two-line stanzas. Often, as I’m composing, a pattern of stanzas with a set number of lines and sometimes a rhyme scheme emerge organically.

As I kept walking, one image led to another. The concept of middle age led to a picture of a smashed-up body, which led to something crushed by rocks and so on. I now see many of these images are a bit “off,” almost disturbing. A healthy infant isn’t “coiled and shiny,” for instance, except immediately after birth. A newborn with a middle-aged mentality would be a freak. Rocks big enough to block all light from Earth don’t correspond to any natural phenomenon. So seemingly-natural-but-unnatural imagery comes in, which makes the reader feel off-balance. And although I didn’t choose unnatural images on purpose, they are appropriate because the union described was off-balance and, in the end, unhealthy.

I became aware of this when the final line–“We are learning to lie down forever in a meadow”–popped out. I was home by then, working on paper. It felt exactly right, but rereading it I realized the words suggest death not a happy, active partnership.

This experience of the subconscious delivering the material, tone and form makes writing poetry exciting. Unlike analytic writing, you can’t plan beforehand how it’s going to go. There’s hard work involved, of course; I often rewrite massively and always show poems to other writers for suggestions. But composing starts with the light tap of a phrase or image, which the writer leaps to follow in trust and gratitude.

Naomi’s reference to Lamott leads us to the next segment of this series: prose writers. We will feature Susan Muaddi Darraj, whose “My West Bank Education: 1998” also appears in the Water issue, then move on to others who have contributed to prior issues. We’d also be happy to post any comments on craft you might have.

Saints Alive, It’s a Pushcart Nomination

I did not write or share my own poems other than whimsically until a time in my life several years ago when I turned to poems and poets with urgency and a deep need.–Tara Hart

Tara Hart "Patronized"

Tara Hart reads “Patronized” at the LPR Summer 2010 Spirituality issue launch.

On his gold-rimmed card, St. Gerard’s slim, wrinkle-free face gazes up to heaven. He died at 29 from tuberculosis, but St. Gerard was sanctified for helping mothers in delivery. Tara Hart’s poem “Patronized,” published in the Summer 2010 Spirituality issue of the Little Patuxent Review and reprinted below, relates one mother’s reaction to the well-meant but feeble gesture of handing a mourner a saint’s prayer card.

As a contributing editor, I was pleased to nominate her poem for one of this year’s Pushcart Prizes, awards given to work published in small presses. Its protagonist’s voice–both weary and sassy with grief–speaks a sincere reaction to the sentimentalized saint, who is clearly inadequate to ease her pain. The clever word play and religious imagery contrast and blend to create a poem that both cries out in grief and raises a sarcastic protest to sacred comfort.

St. Gerard

St. Gerard as depicted on a prayer card

Hart says of reading and writing poetry, “My perception of the acceleration of time and of the fragility of life was overwhelming, and the consistent practice of writing helps me create some ‘still points’ of appreciation and connection…I’m grateful when I read a poem or story and learn something new–the insight, the connection with the writer fires through me like a current. I’ve finally learned to ground my own writing in the very simple, ordinary truths of daily life, and somehow, sometimes, if I share it, the current passes to another person. This is deeply satisfying.”

Hart chairs the English/World Languages Division at Howard Community College, co-edits the HCC literary and arts magazine, The Muse, and serves on the board of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Her poetry has been published in the Baltimore City Paper and Welter.  She lives in Columbia, MD with her husband and two children.

Pushcart Prizes are awarded in the spring. We’ll keep you posted.

Patronized
by Tara Hart

Dear St. Gerard, You, on the card. I am
supposed to pray to you, etcetera.
Patron saint of mothers and childbirth,
you look far too frail to bear my story.

She came much too early and I almost died
And then she did, and–damn, boy, your eyes do look kind,
but blankety blank. O dear Sainty Smoothface, what do you
know about death?

It may be you bore things—like those whips and their scorn
and you suffered with grace and you had your reward, but
earnest one, let me say something right now. I
was wheeled in, arms splayed, with a nail in my throat
and tubes in every hole until they put me out.

Let me try again. Dear St. Gerard, you are too young.
You are too delicate. You are, dare-I-say, dumb.

I can’t believe that you, with your eyes to the sky,
is all that the Church has to give me when
I have lost everything—love, labor, lost.
Get me the round goddess, full of lines, laughter, hope,
To say Jesus, girl, breathe and I know, how I know.