Nicholas Harp's characteristic line is packed with nouns, and therefore stresses, yet he knows how to suddenly relax it and give us that satisfactory illusion of natural speech. "Psalm," for example, begins Hopkinsesque: "Praise to the matrix of dew / shingling woodshed rooftops…" Yet just a few lines later we hear, "And because I half-woke at dawn, / warm and without worry," evidence of Harp allowing his poem to breathe as its contextual moment demands. In this case the trochee is his main instrument, serving the imperatives of praise. It leads the iambs down the page, with some alliterative ballast thrown in for (literally) good measure, all in service of gradations of thought and feeling. His good, trustworthy ear was one of the first things that attracted me to his work. Indeed, his poems are replete with music and musicians-a rangy mix from Robert Johnson to Yo-Yo Ma. As a young man, Harp trained to be cellist.
Here is a poetry firmly and philosophically rooted in the quotidian. "Nothing's low to begin with," is how "Fear of Flying" begins. If things go up, they are the things around us, often propelled by joy- "the trampoline leap / of the secret admirer," and "arms arcing like catapults / to high the five, / to trace and wake the sky." The quotidian, yes, but Harp knows how immense that territory is. He aspires to let in as much of the world as he can. At the end of "Restoration Hardware" he says, "I want my stone to say / EVERYTHING." That's the wish of a poet we would have good reason to worry about, unless we were sure he had an equal commitment to art and its liberating constraints. And Nick Harp certainly does.
And the days keeps on worryin' me
There's a hellhound on my trail.
A scream, aimed straight to God,
becomes loud music. The braying prayers
of women angered by the vanity
of worldly things, the elegant cruelty
of men spun round on the axes of love,
these are cavitations of spirit, blues
because yearning resides in muted azures
of dawn, transverse cobalt frescoes
of falling nights. Their rhythm's
synodic-time flourishes its fins
through the distilled rivers of sharecropper
hymnals, across bayou deltas, in the Hudson
swiveling its shoulders to brush backs with the East,
grouchy subway cohorts who still mean well.
Hear the throat pulled straight, the word "me"
chased off toward the outer atmospheres,
like the songs of red wolves, who don't ask the moon
for anything, just howl because they know it's high.
The Davidov Stradivarius
When Yo-Yo Ma first leaned over it, he
pressed a soft thumbprint into the varnish.
The Strad fallow for ten years since M.S.
plundered Jacqueline du Pré's avian
muscles (the fingerboard suddenly iced
under her, traitorous), he said it took weeks
for the spruce and maple to quiver free
her old sound. But in the vibrating bend
of the bow over strings, he felt the cello
slowly loosen, lifting him through higher
and steadier registers, every movement
and pitch rounded by wood, the Davidov
recalling suites it had sung for centuries.
Fear of Flying
Nothing's low to begin with.
Even the hectic scatter of
larvae in a Bennigan's trash bin,
bulbous molds incorporating the dying
rust red of the apple they're eating,
or a fleet of centipedes clattering
beneath 57th Street like the N train:
all these humbles-all these bitty
decumbent groundlings-they lift
with the pressure of purpose.
Let what goes up be our glee
in love, the in-flight moves
our limbs propose, the ahems
that ascend before kisses,
the trampoline leap
of the secret admirer,
our arms arcing like catapults
to high the five,
to trace and wake the sky.
The air's not meant
for throttling through,
but for breathing in.
Nature geek/twice-shy capsule of days
granules of light,
soft, hidden places
in musty garages, a bending
curtsy of oaks
pressing windward on the dales
rain slips past. You should be
neither stone nor lily nor brook,
should slide bare easy
through temperance toward me,
should accept as true that a green-dipped
forest, these days, is another fire
rocking under air
just waiting to burn.
Praise to the matrix of dew
shingling woodshed rooftops.
Praise to the neighbors' squeaky sex
and praise to the birch branch.
Praise to whomever you love
today, or whoever loves you.
And because I half-woke at dawn,
warm and without worry,
to the glottal din of a truck
ambling through the neighborhood.
Outside: the earth's grown cool
beneath the mailman's poky
feet. November rain
bleaches neighborhood ribbons
canary to lemon to the blonde cream
of almost gone. Too many mandates.
This whole gray month's just a way
of recalling what's on the breeze.
Inside: catalogs, the panorama of what's
coming. Here's pottery
for the people, the means to save
and carry. Brindled rock rubbed
from Vermont quarries, stuffed
between sprinklers and ottomans.
Get an artifact for the backyard,
a granite tablet machine-carved
like an incredulous tombstone
for the hopeful, horticultural:
My friend got that one,
the baffling declaration etched now
in the stoic hardening
of her garden, the little
sleeping clumps waiting for
Words are all we have
says my old mentor. Lifetimes
away, the petrified kid in the desert
breathes hard into the night,
leans squinting above the M249 light
machine gun, calms his watch
with whispered streets
of his old neighborhood:
Pilgrim, Lincoln, Harvard, Congress.
Would you believe I'd give anything
for the tools to renovate? To tint
and tilt our bit of curvature back
toward a curtain of green?
Make a marker for me,
and I'll pay with blood
money and remembrance.
I want this patch of land
back the way it was.
I want my stone to say