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Pamela Hart: My Friend the Poet

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I imagine most writers have a dedicated writing buddy -- and hope many have been as lucky as I have. Pamela Hart and I met in 1974 at Boston University. Pam was and is one of the most beautiful women I've ever known and also a masterful poet. It's official, in fact, because the National Endowment for the Arts just said so yesterday when they granted her a Literature Fellowship for Poetry.

Pam and I started a conversation when we both worked on BU's off-campus alternative paper The News and we've been talking ever since. First over tuna melts and coffee at Aegean Fare in Kenmore Square, then over Entenmann's and coffee at suburban playgroups in Westchester County as we raised six children between us and nowadays distance forces us to talk over cell phones and coffee as we both drive around on late afternoon errands.

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Looking back I see us up all night in college wielding X-Acto knives as we lay out the front page and pause to talk about ourselves and our dreams; I see us lingering in darkening driveways holding sleepy toddlers after hellacious birthday parties loath to end a give-and-take about books over babies; I see us walking in 90-degree heat up and down the roads of South Salem when I stop on my annual summer drive from Washington to Cape Cod so I won't get blood clots and stroke out but mostly because I need to check in with her.

We talk about regular stuff -- boyfriends, parents, siblings, husbands, children, dogs, linens and new sofas and also about our stuff -- love, babies, cancer, milestones, setbacks, the Crazy that is often everywhere and threatens to do us in, but most importantly, we talk about writing. Not so much what we're writing about but the how and why of it. The hard part. The part you need a friend on your side for. I believe in her and she believes in me: It's been our private pact and happy secret for over 30 years now. Well, hers is out.

Here is Pam and her poetry in her own words:

For me, writing is about learning what I think and see about my world, my life, experiences in a day or moment. I write to know what I think, to paraphrase Joan Didion. Writing a poem is about digging beyond experience into meaning. When I write a poem I take what I see and experience and try to shape it into a work that's partly visual, partly aural (sounds of words are important to me and how one word can bump or collide into another and offer new sounds/meanings) as well as partly metaphoric. I pay attention to words, the order of words, the sounds, their associative qualities, that kind of thing.

Sometimes a bone

is a bone on the table in the morning
to be looked at, nothing else, look

at its five beautiful points like bone
china or like the register of lines

on a forehead, press them into estuaries we follow
to a low-tide inlet, collecting shells rebuffed

by gull or crab, swim - the tide coming in - sift
for beach glass--toss back any not-yet-luster-worn piece

--or here at the bone's edge, look,
a deeper brown and small knots waiting

to be deciphered. So I set out to tell the way
things are, look up from the bone on the table

distracted by the crows' laugh, which isn't
laughter but one name for their song

and crossing the yard is a buck, his four
points charting his head, look

the bone, its curvature makes
positive and negative shapes on the table

but there's no making going on anywhere
only this bone bereft,

but for my line of sight from point to point
mapping the bone - image and frame.

My poems often circle around the idea of looking, paying attention. I want my writing to be really visual. To use language -- words, syntax, sound -- as materials. The way a visual artist uses paint or paper camera lens. I think of my poems as being like visual works of art in that they depict a subject rather than present a big truth about the world. I envy visual artists. Some of my poems spring from specific visual works or are in response to or in conversation with visual artists. This practice of "ekphrasis" (i.e., poems in response to visual art) is ancient and contemporary and I've learned a lot by studying visual artists.

All that being said, what is my poetry "about?" Well, I don't really take on big themes or big ideas. If anything I avoid them. I think that's why I don't write fiction -- so I can avoid being smart! A reviewer kindly wrote of my poetry that "the images stay with you when you put the book down to stare out the window." This is what I hope occurs. That you read a poem and decide to look again -- either out the window or at yourself or whatever happens to be there in that moment. That something in one of my poems (or anyone's for that matter) makes you pause and think and stare for a little while, before you return to the action of the day.

Azure Aubade

Through a window the blue
Of you breaks among boney maples

Your arrival in notes of early light
Is departure, your echo an entrance

Dressed in lapis, like skin you're
Here before there's time to forget

Your cobalt speaks
Hawk or heat wave

You turn Prussian then aqua
At turquoise you're gone to noon

You ink the Nile, in Kabul
Eyes capture your cerulean folds

My day is cadmium mellow
A surfeit of blank, I lose you

In lichen, you're Mary's Cloak
Neptune, Ella at the Cote D'Azur

A flash of your electric
Blue snags feather then vein

Which contains me till evening
Your indigo return inspiring night

Being awarded the NEA grant is a real affirmation. It's a recognition of my work because the panel looks only at your writing, your poems. I've tended to label myself a writer and teacher, but with the NEA award, I'll practice calling myself a poet more often.


Penelope at the Shooting Range

shell casings flit like humming
birds, ricochet off my arm, beaks

snagged in the weave of my sweater, hot
from flight

their beautiful moltings
their papery hearts like scatterlings

seventeen thoughtful hollow-point bullets
nesting in the chamber

I squeeze the trigger of its spring-loaded frame
as one shot a thousand feet

per second flies toward the target
sound stunning my chest

Telemachus, the barrel is domestic gray
a spoon or pen snug in my hand

to know what you know I
load the magazine, praying

forget the father, the red winged black birds
have returned, their jolt tangles my hair

Pamela Hart is writer in residence at the Katonah Museum of Art. Her chapbook, "The End of the Body", was published by Toadlily Press in 2006 and her poetry has appeared in a variety of journals, including The Cortland Review, Kalliope, Cider Press Review, O-Dark-Thirty and others.