THE EDGES WE SHARE
For years, I have addressed poems to specific poets—my “wider fellowship,” as I refer to them—considering how our lives, if not our poems, might entwine. In each address, I try to say what I can say to only that poet and to no one else. Having listened to Amy Glynn, for instance, sing “Keep Your Distance” one night in Sewanee, I wrote to her, hoping to “hold the note exactly at the edge we share / and keep it there, so that the song might never end.” Knowing that Al Maginnes and his wife adopted a child, I wrote of my own adoption, of the mystery of kinship, of the wholeness any of us finds when taken in by others, strangers becoming a new family. I suppose something like that happens with writer and reader: we take each other in, form another family, share in each other’s concerns, bear each other’s burdens.
In “Concerning Prayers as Intermingled,” addressed to Mark Jarman, I struggled to discern what I was trying to voice. After countless revisions, a key line, with a telling line break, finally emerged—“Perhaps we have deceived ourselves, believing”—and I suddenly knew what the poem’s central tension was. Faith has always been at the center of my writing, and Jarman’s poems matter to me in that respect, having come alongside as a witness and an encouragement. What I felt my way toward saying I felt I could write only to Jarman, to the shared concerns our poems explore.
The title poem to his collection Questions for Ecclesiastes, which I first read in 1993, was in the background for me when I wrote “Concerning Prayers as Intermingled.” Jarman’s poem brings us into the grieving room of a family, into the shock of a child’s suicide—a devastated space to which a preacher, Jarman’s father, is “called,” a hollowed-out space of people seeking comfort, consolation, and answers within a horrendous aftermath. I still read that poem and try to place myself among its biblical lines, as if I might enter the poem deeply enough that my presence might help to bear a small part of that family’s grief, if only because I remember a similar room.
As a fifteen-year-old, I spent most of a week in a close family’s house in the aftermath of their son having somehow, in the bottomlands, driven off into the river in early February. He saved his girlfriend by throwing her to the riverbank. She walked for hours with no shoes through snow and ice until she found a house and emerged. That first night, many of us searched the bottomlands, shining spotlights, screaming his name, hoping against hope that he had somehow gotten ashore. Days passed before his body was recovered. Did we deceive ourselves believing, praying? Do I deceive myself now when I try to abide with him—prayerfully, intercessionally—during those final moments when he knows he will not survive.
“If heaven has a look-out / looking out for us, a lot slips through that frankly / seems horrific,” I say early in my poem, late in a weariness and grief I still struggle to overcome. Sometimes my faith, too, I have to admit, struggles to get ashore, risks going under. As writers and as readers, the poems, stories, essays, and novels we take in—that take us in—sometimes help. They remind us of the other families to which we belong. Maybe words on a page, either written or read, can be a way to bear each other’s burdens. We are “compassed about,” as Hebrews says, “with so great a cloud of witnesses,” yet sometimes a darkness closes in, and laying aside the weight that besets us can seem impossible. We need others’ words, experiences, and prayers intermingled with our own. In our brokenness, such a shared space may be the closest we can get to the wholeness we clutch toward, trusting it exists.
JEFF HARDIN is the author of five collections of poems, most recently Restoring the Narrative, Small Revolution, and No Other Kind of World. Recipient of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize and the X. J. Kennedy Prize, his poems appear in recent issues of The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, and North American Review.