Poets from Osip Mandelstam to Edward Hirsch have observed that a poem is like a message in a bottle, a kind of personal missive from the poet to the unknown reader. Certainly the poems that resonate most strongly are often those that clearly have the flavor of messages, with the writer speaking confidingly to his audience, expressing emotions and impressions readers can recognize within themselves. Many of the poems in Jeff Hardin’s Notes for a Praise Book have just this intimate quality, with Hardin’s strong, individual voice using imagery—usually drawn from rural life and the natural world—to convey philosophical and spiritual insights.
References to the earth—soil, plants, animals, landscape, weather, the changing seasons—abound in Hardin’s poems. He has a knack for shaping phrases that capture the ordinary, fleeting impressions nature delivers, as well as the moments of beauty that usually go uncelebrated. In “Little Ditty for the Coming Days,” he writes of the “mist-light and tatters / of early morning,” and in “Seed Heads Bursting in Gold Light” he notes how “one tree rests its dying toward another.” Hardin, who teaches at Columbia State Community College in Maury County, is rarely interested in conveying these images for their own sake, nor does he use them, in the manner of Robinson Jeffers, to illustrate the small and wayward character of humanity. More in the Wordsworthian vein, Hardin looks to nature for comfort and revelation. He has a habit of leaping from image to insight, but these leaps are always sure; the connection between immediate experience and abstract thought makes intuitive sense, as in “From a Day of Falling Snow”:
From a day of falling snow we find the sky again.
The trees have never been more still, their branches
to every trembling inch of bearing white.
I think it takes forever for the soul to find its edge.
The condition of the soul, as the title of the collection suggests, is a chief concern in these poems. Hardin has a relentlessly spiritual sensibility, and most of his work displays a humble mysticism. For him, holiness surrounds us. In “Seeing and Hearing,” perception itself becomes worship:
Whatever else we call the dandelion fluff sailing
in its own time down the passageways of wind
we might as well agree
its motion makes a hymn.
Reconciling the pure and redemptive pull of the spirit with the mess and noise of modern life is a problem confronted repeatedly in these poems. The title poem—which is perhaps the best in this very solid collection—rephrases this dilemma in each of its eight segments. “I don’t have to tell anyone who’s watched thistle seed / scatter in wind / that we, too, long to leap from ourselves” he writes in “Notes for a Praise Book,” acknowledging the universal human desire for some kind of transcendence. And though he nods periodically to poetry as the soul’s helpmeet, in this poem,” he concedes its limitations:
Oh what will become of us who worry over words,
their shades and implications, when the outer
trumps the inner
and every soul’s a billboard?
Limited though they may be, words are the tool Hardin has at hand, and he puts them to brilliant use. In the poem’s final section, he takes words as metaphor for spirit and in the same lines works a variation on the message in a bottle.
I say we pick some sprigs and plant them in a book
to happen onto later.
In some far year we can’t imagine.
By people we might be then, happier,
with a kindness inside us
we can’t explain exactly or find the end of.