Kerry Hardie's The Ash and the Oak and the Wild Cherry Tree is her first book since her Selected Poems (2011), and the poems in this volume alternate between looking directly at, then glancing away from, the finite nature of our lives. Hardie is a fine fiction writer as well as a poet; she never blurs the syntactic and aesthetic requirements of the two genres. Her novels, A Winter Marriage (2000) and The Bird Woman (2006) contain well-developed, often prickly characters, and both novels examine the ways in which the past creeps up into the present. Her poems explore a more questioning, spiritual territory—although her prose and poetry do share an astringent intelligence and a grounding in the natural world.
The opening poem, "Being Here, Now," serves as a prologue. It plays on the title of Ram Dass's famous book of the 1960s, although her images lean toward Keats's imaginative world rather than to metaphysical evocations. "This day—a round place of clean brightness / a drop of rain laid on a pleated leaf ": this final [End Page 157] image, with its doubled internal rhymes, alludes to her poetic project in this volume, to praise life, and observe it, while we have it. Hardie's dedication in the book is tenderly specific: for her younger brother Paddy who died in India, and his partner Lu and their sons. It is not just the limitations of age that echo through the book, but also the inevitability of death around us.
Hardie has a marvelous feel for the iambic line, and the formal elements of the first poem are subtly executed. "Sixty" has four stanzas, and the first and final stanza mirror each other. The second stanza describes her husband growing older, and the third stanza begins: "This mirror his form holds to mine / is not how I want things to be." The poem itself is a mirroring, though we read the final stanza differently as we pass through the lens of the two center stanzas.
Hardie's images are not Eastern, but like yin and yang, her poems move from one thing to its opposite in a highly condensed form. In "Otters," she describes a dreamscape and imagines how the "Winged otters gambolled black rocks." She moves from the fantastic to the contemplative:
I sit at the window and thinkof the body gone back to the earthof the end of myself to myself.
But the otters with wings come and go.They are marvelous, fearless and bright.And I shine and I shine and I shine.
The poem evokes Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish," which meditates on the relationship between hunter and prey, and the animal instinct of survival. After looking the fish in the eye, Bishop is transformed, seeing everything as "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Hardie conflates her observing consciousness with the magical creatures, and takes the light into herself. The repeated anapestic feet give a note of continuation to the poem's final affirmation.
The combination of mirroring, and combining an element with its opposite, appears in "Self Portrait," where the form of the poem mirrors itself, with the exception of the final line. The first three tercets describe a dark bird "rustling / the leaves of my tree." But after the first three stanzas, Hardie turns the poem in on itself:
I am the dark birdthat sits in the leaves,neither shifting nor blinking.
I am the raw fleshthat's hunched at the rootsensnared in my fear. [End Page 158]
But who is this tree,its great branches singing and sighingsheltering a raptor,
shielding its prey?
The speaker fears and is the dark bird; the tree is shelter for both the predator and prey.
The second half of the volume appears to be more optimistic. In "Timing," Hardie contemplates a neighbor's late winter death:
I wouldn't wait and die in the springwhen the darkness lifts off the worldlike an old quilt,
wouldn't wait for this bursting light,this insistence...