My first day in Richard Hugo’s workshop, forty-some years ago, Hugo asked a second-year student to read his poem. “Robbie Loftus has beaten me up again in the boys can,” it began.
Wow, I thought, you can do that? I loved the voice. I loved that it named names, that I heard it talking to me. I loved the attitude behind the voice, the aplomb, the it is what it is quality when faced with the indignities of youth. I loved that by the first line it had me smiling. Thus, my introduction to Ed Harkness. Later that year, Hugo gushed over another Harkness poem (“The Man in the Recreation Room”); that it was formal, a villanelle, struck me as really odd. Only later did I understand how the mixing of these two impulses, the informal and the formal, gave his work its particular character.
One nugget of Hugo wisdom I still wholeheartedly endorse is that memorable writing has two subjects: the thing that snags your attention in the first place, and the thing you discover as you write—the true subject, the surprise, the thing you didn’t already know. The Law of the Unforeseen is a marvelous example of this dictum. As in his earlier collections [Saying the Necessary (2000), Beautiful Passing Lives (2010), and several chapbooks], these poems concern themselves, outwardly, with family life, and the natural world of the Pacific Northwest (he has a special affinity for birds). But they’re never static, they keep cranking things another crank.
Throughout The Law of the Unforeseen there’s an urgent sense of the poem as an act of revolt against the effects of time. There are elegies for departed friends, and a heartbreaking, regret-fueled account of a poetry student murdered by her boyfriend. Increasingly, the stories he wants to dig up and preserve are those of his own ancestors. In “Photo of the Twins, Ca. 1897,” we meet the Savoy girls, Mert and Gert, their girlhood portrait colliding with what’s known of their later history. The urge to know them (and be known by them) is potent: “I want to think my kinswomen . . . would smile,” he writes, “or at least have understood . . .
my life’s work, which has been to rouse them,
raise them from their graves, to light the flash
that saves them, and saves the unsmiling
radiant world, against all odds, from oblivion.
In “Ax,” Thomas Harkness, immigrant from County Antrim, fibs his way into the Union Army at age 55; three months later, a ricocheting ax blade slices through his shoe and four inches of bone and tendon. As with the twins, we flash ahead to glimpse his later life, and finally his broken grave marker; the poem ends:
The ax has gone to rust, just as his stone
will fall away to pieces, chunks, gravel, grit,
and at last to dust, its inscription
reduced to a whisper in the elms.
Another poem starts with a hand-made wooden spoon from a thrift store—burn-scarred, its wear suggesting years of stirring by a left-handed woman . . .
perhaps living—wild surmise—
in Iowa in the thirties, baby
balanced on her right hip . . .
The “wild surmise” fills another eight stanzas—his capacity for empathy and his powers of invention both have hair-triggers, we learn.
The Law of the Unforeseen has no villanelles, but there’s constant attention to sound and design, line and stanza pattern. Tellingly, “New Year’s Eve,” the most harrowing of poems (recounting an adult son’s fatal heart attack and “one chance in a million” resuscitation) uses a fixed form with key words repeated. And there are a number of sonnets, “Coffee” and “The Lesson,” to name two, both powerful, both reminding me that a rhymed couplet can hit like a mallet.
For all the grace and accessibility and humor (he can be savagely funny), Harkness also possesses a vein of rock-hard moral outrage. It surfaced throughout the earlier collections —in “Spain, 1938” (Saying the Necessary), for instance, and in the remarkable sequence, “Five Angry Little Songs” (Beautiful Passing Lives). He loathes war, duplicitous government, faux patriotism, stupidity, untruth, and all the rest of it. In another of the new sonnets (“America, Great Once Again”) we watch a ten-year-old girl witnessing her mother’s beating by police:
. . . men
in body armor, one boot on the woman’s back,.
one on her neck, while others tie her wrists,
twisting them till she shrieks, her body slack
from writhing against what it resists.
The devastating “The Unfocused Eyes of Drones” begins benignly enough:
They’re dream wrens in the clear lake of day,
like toys, a slightly larger replica
of those model planes men play with
at the park on weekend to escape the house.
However (calling to mind Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil”), it soon morphs into an account of a drone operator, somewhere in the American Heartland, dispassionately annihilating a target on the far side of the world—including the girl in red headscarf watering eggplants in the courtyard outside her home. Like you, perhaps, I’ve been profoundly demoralized by the 45th presidency; chilling as a poem like “The Unfocused Eyes of Drones” is, I find myself somehow bucked up, heartened by the sound of defiance; I’m reminded how critical it is for our artists to remain engaged.
Finally, The Law of the Unforeseen is a collection to celebrate, a book with range and heart, the product of intense curiosity and love of craft. If Hugo were still around he’d still be gushing.
by David Long