Thomas J. Millay Reviews Kevin Hart’s Barefoot
Dark One, I sit alone without a light
And let the darkness bring me close to you.
Once, I sat alone on my front porch, in the dark, breathing in the night air. I was not smoking or drinking, just sitting. After some time, my roommate arrived, driving his car up the driveway toward the porch; he was getting home from work. The lights of his car illumined me. Being an eminently sensible person, he asked me what on earth I was doing just sitting there in the dark. I could not explain. It is not rational to sit in the dark doing nothing. Or, if it is, I do not have the words to say why it is.
It seems to me that most reasonable people would judge someone sitting alone in the dark, without light or evident purpose, to be completely mad. The poetry of Kevin Hart is for those who dissent from such a judgment (even if only secretly). Wandering barefoot and alone at night is an acceptable thing to do in Hart’s world, it is where God is to be found. Desire for the divine is always there, around the corner from our everyday selves, waiting to make us socially unacceptable. This desire is often hidden, repressed—but we can open ourselves to it. The poem is part of this opening; it is one of the ways we can make time for time.
But it is not the only way. More than his previous poetry, Barefoot highlights the role silent contemplation plays in Hart’s pursuit of the Dark One:
One half of me is here; the other half
Must wait a little longer to be born:
And so I let the silence nest in me
And lower myself down into myself.
It’s late, and so I go to be with you.
I sit awhile, alone, and slowly fall
A mile or two into myself, Dark One,
Until I reach the silence that is you.
Poetry is intended to work in tandem with a practiced silence. The words of these poems speak best to a reader who has tried them out, who has spent time gathering quiet. Just like a useful guide to meditation (such as Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land), Hart gives words that assist in the discipline that is silent contemplation. This is no easy thing, as it is words for a wordless task, rays of light within an encompassing darkness, pinpoints on a mapless region. In these poems, Hart also gives my favorite image as of yet for the Dark One who lies at the heart of our attentive silence:
And you are there, behind it all, they say,
Like backing on a mirror one can’t see.
These lines encapsulate the God that is sought in silence, who is just beyond our perception, or right at the other side of what we know. Yet they also speak to where God can be found—everywhere, in everything, and at all times—not simply in the traditional disciplines of quiet. God can strike us anywhere and in anything we have desired.
But Barefoot is not a work of strictly religious poetry. There is nothing strict about Hart’s poetry of excess, religious though it may be. Longing for God is the basis of Hart’s verse, the basso continuum, but this foundation constantly draws other longings into its orbit. Earlier we saw Hart barefoot, walking in the dark, looking for God. There are other resonances to the word barefoot, however, which he explores in other poems:
Sweet grass, still warm,
Beneath the lightest dress:
No words to say,
Loosely laced with green,
Tasting a little sweat
Upon my lip
And looking up again:
All summer grass,
The poetry here is simple and erotic, expressed with the kind of loving attention to detail that creates a visionary reading experience. The other senses are also wrapped into these evocations. In “Sugar,” a sequence of ten poems, Hart makes meaning out of a tongue’s delectation, speaking of:
That tastes like naked sugar juice
Love, a hit of pure sugar that creates an immediate bliss. This is a bliss that makes us forget everything, all of the past and all mistakes. But there is also complicated, broken love—a love that struggles to remember anything other than mistakes. These poems are mostly contained in the fourth part of the collection. The pain of Hart’s experience is most fully on display in “My Daughters”; poignancy of expression, however, reaches its height in “Slant.” In this latter poem, Hart tells a compact narrative: a cut hand, a drop of blood mixed into a child’s birthday cake, and the hope that this blood would act as a “charm,” so that the beloved’s love would never leave. She doesn’t eat the slice laid aside for her. Things do not work out. There is a new sense of shame and guilt that goes along with these poems of broken love. Hart is not a poet to avoided tarrying with the negative. In his previous poems, one regularly comes across regret, nostalgia, unfulfilled longing, and death (I think of “Your Shadow’s Songs,” for example, or “Those White, Ancient Birds”—both poems reminding me of Tarkovsky’s great film, The Mirror). These dark themes are not necessarily to be identified with the shame or guilt usually associated with moral failing. However, in Barefoot, Hart sometimes feels God’s condemnation quick upon him. There are the “bleak” words from the heights referenced in “Apart,” and the dialogue with the “Flesh” in “Almost Classical,” which ends with these memorable lines:
You’ve got a little while, it’s true, to live
And take far more than you will give,
But God will not be bucked
And we’ll be fucked.
That last couplet is just one of many memorable lines from the collection that will repeat themselves in your head long after the book has been laid down. Another is: “Look left, and death will enter from the right”—a phrase that speaks to the sudden death. The directionality of the phrase makes the constant surprise inherent in our finitude palpable, more so than an ordinary memento mori would do.
This phrase about death entering from the right is part of series of poems Hart has written about the death of his father, which opens the collection. These are some of the most tender poems Hart has written. He wants to lead his father gently into the afterlife, a place where his rest will no longer be disturbed by “memories of war”; he wants to take his father by the hand, and walk barefoot with him through the grass, and assure him that his journey will be safe. By this tenderness we step into specific dimensions of Hart’s personal grief.
No review of Kevin Hart’s poetry would be complete without noting the formal perfection that is always on display. For example, a rhyming couplet has been transformed into internal rhyme, the effect being a nearly mystical bracketing of the final two words:
Old words that go to bed with us each night
Young words that taste of morning light and you
And you. When I read Kevin Hart, I feel less alone, which is to say that I feel that someone understands my own desire to be alone. I feel a companion spirit, out there wandering barefoot in the darkness, looking for God. But this does not mean that the experience is entirely comforting; this is not some faux-poetry of greeting-card consolation. The Dark One we meet out there may not give us what we want. The lines that best evoke this reality, lines that draw together delight, death, guilt, and longing, are found in the second poem of the sequence “The Little Songbook of the Dark One”:
You’re not prepared to hear of him: Dark One.
You cannot see him with those eyes of yours.
Your words, big locks on little glimmerings.
You hear the slow, dark turning of a storm
And not the darker words he breaths in you.
You hear me speak, and say, “Too sweet by half!”
And never know that drawing close to him
Is licking honey on a razorblade.
These lines succinctly take one to the heart of the collection. The honey and the razor, found out in the stillness and the darkness: this is the God of Kevin Hart, the Dark One, whom we long to meet, and who is sometimes sweet, like sugar, but of whom we should remain in awe.
Thomas J. Millay is a Ph.D. student in Theology and Christian Ethics at Baylor University in Waco, TX. A forthcoming article on the ethics of Kierkegaard and Hegel will be published in Modern Theology. He has previously published articles in the Scottish Journal of Theology, the International Journal of Systematic Theology, and Telos. His dissertation is concerned with Kierkegaard’s asceticism.