Review by Casey Thayer
THE HEADLESS SAINTS
by Myronn Hardy
New Issues Poetry & Prose
The College of Arts and Sciences
Western Michigan University
85 pp., $14.00
In his second collection, The Headless Saints, Myronn Hardy, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, continues to develop and expand upon the aesthetic established in his first collection, Approaching the Center (New Issues 2001). His distinctive aesthetic is comprised of clarity and concreteness in image, attention to the harmony and dissonance of sound and wordplay, a focus on social issues, and the impressionistic hesitancy to directly interpret the content or subject of the poem.
Swimming against an American poetic history that praises the long, bloated, self-righteous manifesto (think “Song of Myself” or “Howl”), Hardy crafts lyric, minimalistic poems that recall Dickinson in their clear-eyed, concrete natural imagism. But instead of adhering to Dickinson’s strict rhyme scheme and meter, he prefers a more muted lyricism, a rhythm only loosely based on iambs and a Kay Ryan-esque ear for echoes of sound and slant rhyme or, as Junot Diaz has noted, an ear for language similar to early Cornelius Eady. Consider the web of assonance in the second and final stanza of the collection’s opening poem, “Dive”:
Jump into the sea swim until it
gets deep. Dive for chests of silver the lost
luck of pirates bankrupt empires.
What you find may feed this town forever.
This short excerpt witnesses to the musicality Hardy will draw on throughout the collection. In addition to the alliteration scattered throughout, he gives us the echoes of slant rhyme in the long ‘e’ of “sea,” “deep,” and “feed” and the long ‘i’ in the first syllable of “pirates” and the second of “empires.” Also, notice the iambic swing of the poem’s final line: “What you find may feed this town forever.”
Later in the collection, Hardy again uses the long ‘i’ assonance in “The Chaos of Slaughter”: “Monkfish have violent heads. / Their mouths are asylums where / no one is quiet.” In “Esperança,” the book’s closer, he uses the long ‘o’ vowel to reinforce the tragedy of the poem’s content, to physically force the reader to lament the scene with a wailing, elegiac “O” even while suggesting we turn our heads:
These muddy roads even after heat
are copper mines unearthed. Don’t
pay any attention to shoes sinking
I will save you wash soles until
all is forgotten. Where the grass is
flat the long path through the brush
constantly growing changing
leaves to orange flex. Life is
over nothing can stop such
This attention to language, or what Richard Hugo defined in Triggering Town as the ability to allow “truth to conform to music,” is sorely lacking in contemporary poetry. To watch a poet employ sound not only for its musicality but also for its potential in helping to create meaning is simply astounding and a testament to Hardy’s dedication to craft. A poem often is most cohesive and successful when the form mimics the content. In this collection, Hardy largely succeeds at doing this, at creating organically whole poems where the music aids in creating the poem’s intended meaning.
Like Dickinson’s hyphen, Hardy draws on his own grammatical trademark—the tab. Throughout the collection, he shows an aversion to punctuation, in nearly all cases, inserting white space to indicate commas. As with e.e. cummings’ grammatical experiments, Hardy’s use of the tab to indicate a comma-length pause could threaten to become overbearing, unnecessary, and a downright hindrance to the poem’s readability. Some readers may even find it gimmicky. However, the white space allotted by the tab gives the poems a sense of breathlessness and delicacy that counterpoint the fierce frustration of many of Hardy’s lines. This is conflict between the concreteness of the lines and the delicacy of the form is seen perhaps most clearly in the middle lines of the double-spaced poem “Garnets for Dando”:
Sleep has scratched your
back. Those stones have
no mercy but it is the gun
in your mouth that will
Because of this spacing, the poem feels disjointed, shaky, somewhat delicate, a contrast to the hardness and severity of the images and the blunt tone of the speaker. These juxtapositions add another layer of tension, beyond surface content, and witness to Hardy’s honed craft, his purposeful flight from punctuation and traditional form.
On a broader level, Hardy succeeds in bringing a wide-arcing, ambitious scope to the collection, as he had in Approaching the Center. In this collection, he spans a century of time (from 1907 to present day), taking readers to 1930s Santiago, Cuba; 1907 Venice, Italy; and Depression-era New York. He finds inspiration everywhere: in the photographs of Bauer Sá, the poetry of Lorca and Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo, in Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, in the lives of Claude Monet and Hubert Julian, “The Black Eagle,” and even in the world of Charlie Brown. The Headless Saints helps to keep alive these characters, christening them, at least temporarily, with sainthood.
He writes what can be considered the most effective kind of witness poetry; the kind that doesn’t preach and is much more emotionally affecting for simply presenting the reader with a concrete image and allowing that image to pass on the emotional resonance and tragedy much like convection currents pass on heat. He avoids interpretation, doing so only in the book’s most raw, emotional lines (“I told him to learn from the coloreds”), or buries strong declaratives in dialogue (“This is who we are”).
An unfortunate side-effect to a straightforward, clear aesthetic, such as the one used in this collection, is a tendency for readers to dismiss the work as simplistic, maybe even childish, which is somewhat understandable if each poem is taken separately (though I’d find it hard to believe that any reader could dismiss the raw intensity of such poems as “The Chaos of Slaughter” and “The Hunter” or ignore the poetic beauty of “Premonition of June”).
However, Hardy’s poems, like the swabs of an impressionist’s or pointillist’s painting, gain full strength when collected together. As in a Seurat painting, where each image is comprised of dots, readers only come to understand the full force of Hardy’s poetry when it’s taken as a whole, when each poem is read in chorus with the rest. This is a sneaky collection in that it wrecks you incrementally, in small doses. You’ll feel only a vague throbbing until the pain takes you. Despite the assonance, the poems themselves sound quiet, but when added together, Hardy creates a web of sound we can’t ignore; he venerates a host of ghosts that will haunt us long after we’ve put the collection down.
Casey Thayer is an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University and serves as the Assistant Poetry Editor for Passages North. He has poetry forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review.