V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




All in all, Hart’s work is an exploration of love—
it’s sometimes funny, sometimes tense,
almost never easy, but has its moments of humor.

A quick flip through Gwen Hart’s first full-length collection, Lost and Found, reveals a work of love poems.  But don’t be fooled by this label.  Hart’s poems are heavy with the burden of exploring human relationships – whether this exploration follows a young couple on their honeymoon or two childhood friends finding mischief in cafeteria food.
    From the first part of the book, it’s apparent that Hart is fond of formal verse; many of her poems play with such fixed forms as the sestina, the pantoum, the sonnet, the villanelle and the ghazal.  In “Street Song,” the persona, in sonnet form, thinks back to the days when she was young:

        We didn’t need men; we had each other! When
        a group of street musicians began to play
        Six tall women all walking the same way
        we laughed and turned our backs on them.

It’s this memory she anguishes over at the end of the poem: “Now years later, I remember the refrain / Lordy, lordy, I wish I was nineteen again.”
    In some ways, this sentiment seems to echo in the background of many of the poems as the women in this collection struggle with love.  In “Rain in Boston” a young woman wanders through a city alone, ignoring a homeless member of the community by silently musing: “I have become / the needy one / unable to spare / even a word.”  The poem “Thinking About Breaking Up While Solving the Word Jumble” seems playful with the title and form, but the ending words suggest a deep sense of frustration: “...If only the letters would go / where they’re supposed to, and you’d stop making faces / I could say, We’ll not in the right places.”   Even “Anniversary Poem,” a poem that seemingly celebrates a couple’s one year anniversary of marriage finds the persona thinking of her life and this special anniversary in the context of the drowning of another couple.
    Although the relationship between men and women is the focus of many of these poems, Hart’s collection also contains many works that explore other relationships.  In “Permanence” a group of young girls carve boys’ names into wood in a poem ending with a playful couplet: “We pray the picnic tables won’t go rotten / our marks will stay 2 GOOD 2 B 4-Gotten.”   In the more thoughtful “Luxuries,” a  young girl sees no harm in making fun of cafeteria food although her mother finds such acts detrimental: “my mother said I should be ashamed / since my best friend, Jenny Hally, was on a free lunch / tickets and school food was the most / she ever ate.”  Still, the young heroine of this poem knows better; in a concluding voice ringing with adult knowledge she defends her acts saying, “I gave Jenny / laughter, which at her house was scarcer / than milk, and curdled faster.”  And in the disturbing “Playing with Fire” two girls find an afternoon game of dress up gone wrong when a neighborhood boy interferes with their dress-up game:

        ...He pushed her up against the tree, kissed her

        greedily, undid her clothes.  She cried as if he’d burned
        her.  While she told the story, I stay beside her on the bed, tearing
        up her sister’s clothes.  We never played dress-up again.

    In other parts of the book, Hart uses pop culture to explore relationships. At first, this strategy is merely playful and fun, but a closer reading reveals darker undertones.  In “The Break Up,” Hart writes about the split of Ken and Barbie from Barbie’s point of view, “She wonders how she’ll explain it to them / not her kids, of course, but the kids” because the solutions seem so shallow:

        He’ll pack up his surfboard and Dune Buggy
        in the back of the RV Camper; she’ll fold
        up the Dream House, stack her shoes
        in storage, hit the road
        in the pink convertible.  They’ll settle
        on opposite ends of the toy                       
        store divider, tell Skipper                           
        they’re going to “remain friends.”
        But the truth is somewhat harder

        to swallow....   

Like any relationship, the division of physical belongings represent only one small portion of the pain.
    In “Dating the Invisible Man” the main character mourns the loss of a lover. But the relationship was not an ordinary one, for as the persona explains, “But soon little things bother you: / you don’t know what color his eyes are / you look down and see your fingers interlaced / with air....”  The mysterious man in Hart’s poem may be physically invisible, but the metaphor for other relationships is clear.  What does the end of a relationship really look like?  Are the physical remnants left over more disturbing than those not seen as represented in the lines of this poem: “All your memories are half-formed: a dented pillow, an empty chair, an unseen / hand clutching your heart.”
    There’s even an updated fairy tale in “Cinderella Story,” where a young woman working at an ice cream shop imagines her life with a customer who “hated ice cream” but “ate it anyway since that was all / the shop I worked in sold.”  Left alone, one night, she almost finds her dreams come true when he comes back to the store after closing, knocking on the front door.  For a moment, it seems as if the young girl’s fantasies are becoming reality. But instead, we find out he had “come for the phone, not me,” to report a car fire in the parking lot.  She is left standing alone: “The floor all dirty water, my shoes sopping / the fire out, I went back to mopping.”
    All in all, Hart’s work is an exploration of love—it’s sometimes funny, sometimes tense, almost never easy, but has its moments of humor.  And there is no doubt that after reading Hart’s poetry, you will find yourself thinking of a child’s Barbie doll collection in a different way, or looking at graffiti as more than childish declarations  of love.
    Before this collection, Hart published two chapbooks, Losing Ohio (Finishing Line Press) and Dating the Invisible Man (winner of The Ledge 2004 Poetry Chapbook Competition).  If you happen to have both these fine works in your personal collection (as I do), then revisiting parts of this book will be like touching base with an old friend; otherwise, Lost and Found is a must have for any personal collection. 

Lost and Found, Gwen Hart. David Robert Books, 2006. ISBN: 1933456167 $17.00

© by Karen J. Weyant


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