Review: “The Songs Of Oana” by Graham Hardie

Transcendental love poetry is some of the hardest poetry to write. Poets have always been challenged to find new, fresh ways to write about the world’s oldest story.

Graham Hardie’s second book The Songs Of Oana deals with the intangible, the divine, mystic and universal love. Hardie seems like a nice man but if we trust his poetic voice then he seems to be a nice man who lives in a misty, moonlit world of princesses, goddesses and true love where people still use the words “morrow”, “thee” and “tremble in the whispering snows of love.”

Here is his poem “The Passion Of The Lily” in its entirety. It is a sonnet and within the first eight lines we have a nod and a wink to Shakespeare and the words moon, souls, love, perished and the rhyme sky/fly. The diction sounds archaic, overreaching and the end rhymes clunky.

When shall our two bodies meet?
In silence, in grief or upon the moon,
Where the timing souls in unison beat
And the ivy of love perished too soon.
When shall I kiss the lips given to me,
In haste, in mourning or under the sky?
For she will hear her name by the sea
As I await the winter and eyes that fly.
To bring the eminence of her figure
To the hands that yearn for her skin,
To illustrate the desire and to trigger,
The passion of the lily to the poet’s whim.
All the beings of earth and nature’s belonging
Rest with her and in his longing.

What is the ivy of love? The passion of the lily? What is the poet’s whim?

Compare this to another poet of the mystic, Kenneth Rexroth, also writing for a woman:

It is wonderful to watch you,
A living woman in a room
Full of frantic, sterile people,
And think of your arching buttocks
Under your velvet evening dress,
And the beautiful fire spreading
From your sex, burning flesh and bone,
The unbelievably complex
Tissues of you brain all alive
Under your coiling, splendid hair.

I like to think of you naked.
I put your naked body
Between myself alone and death.
If I go into my brain
And set fire to your sweet nipples,
To the tendons beneath your knees,
I can see far before me.
It is empty there where I look,
But at least it is lighted.

Rexroth’s language is specific, the lines taut, the images powerful and contemporary. Note the way Rexroth uses the physical world to draw the reader towards a more philosophical question.

Hardie’s images seem to be code for a certain type of poetic feeling and rather than searching for the right word, the right image,  he seems content to use Hallmark phrasing. No doubt it is difficult to write about the ephemeral world and apply the lessons it has to teach us to the concrete-and-television real-world but using images of silvery moons and feather lyres (as he does) is not a fresh take nor an advancement in any sense of the word.

Occasionally, Hardie hardens up his language as in “Discourse Of Love”, but is let down by his diction.

the deepest cry
is the one you hear
amongst the nipples
of my lady in purple sheets
of velvet fire
and I celebrate her
nipples sucked with
such potent desire

How many nipples must a lady have before a poet can be amongst them?

Some of his lines are tangled and codified almost beyond understanding, and certainly the reader may not wish to put the effort into understanding. Here, from “Tamara”:

Oana the silkworm of my consciousness
feeds only the ladybirds of love. She elaborates
the mire of toad and tadpole written
by the mesh of the muse’s mind. For only
the bulls know her pleasure,
in their finest decorum and parting summers.
Opening the door which cannot be shut, the moonviolet
of my closet dreams, the opium
to set the body to the soul’s nirvana.
But I lie with the vision, my Tamara, in a brothel
on Rose Street and Oana is just a playgirl,
the fantasy and making of Tamara’s prophecy.

Hardie seems to be in bed with an Edinburgh prostitute but is thinking of his muse Oana. Again the tangled language and uncertain metaphors don’t do the work the poet wants them to do and we are lost in a word-maze of Oana the silkworm, whose mind has a mesh that writes, whose pleasure is known only to bulls. This is a  failure to realize the imagined world and make it available to the senses and a failure to live up to the responsibilities of language. Hardie shows nothing and tells everything.

He opens his poem “Her Garden Of Tears “with these lines:

I think of Oana the ecumenical
shower purporting to life’s purpose,

Lines completely lacking in imagery or even any clear meaning. In the same poem we come across a number of Hardie’s talismanic words within six lines:

Generous in its tranquillity
of water, a moon-diamond,
martyr in her garden of tears,
it is her soul.
Behind the gaze
sinks the incumbent of her love

Here we have moon-diamond, garden of tears, soul and love all within six lines.

We learn very little of Hardie’s internal landscape beyond these totem nouns and adjectives. How does he really feel behind the disguise of his language and imagery?

He is more straightforward in his shorter poems and adopts a more contemporary voice, as in “The Waves Of The Sea”:

la belle est la vie
her eyes the stars at night
la belle est la vie
her words the spirit of the free
la belle est la vie
her kiss the morning sun
la belle est la vie
her smile the fruit of the cherry tree
la belle est la vie
her scent the petal of the rose
et la belle est la vie
her passion the waves of the sea

Hardie is still let down by the utter lack of effort with regard to imagery: the stars at night/the spirit of the free/the morning sun/the petals of a rose/the waves of the sea.

His longer poem “Glasgow” is the book’s best moment. Hardie lets his language come freely and manages some nice lines in a beatsy style:

Glasgow you swim in the twilight of heroin
And the sawdust of greatness and I am but the poet of your vanity…

Are you watching the barge on Maryhill canal
Or is this just some of your banter?…

Glasgow the thistle has struck you down.
I didn’t seek your truth for your bosom is swelling
With stabbings and murders.
Glasgow some of the most beautiful women walk by your side…

Glasgow I listen to you and you confess what happened
To Marlene, 7th October, 1997…

Glasgow I’m finally turning my blind eye the other way.

In “Glasgow” some of the concrete specifics so badly missing from the rest of the collection show face and the poem is an enjoyable ride through one of Britain’s most notorious cities. Hardie carves some of the artifice from his language and comes up with some nice images and no little emotion.

Perhaps it is unfair to review such a guileless poet so strictly. These are the poems you can hear at open mic readings all over the English-speaking world, poems which leave the audience restless and perplexed. Hardie aims for the transcendant and divine but is held back by his inability to find a fresh language for his chosen theme, has settled instead for the well-worn path of myths, hearts, souls and moons. For the most part the whole collection is mired in the same problems: archaic diction, woolly imagery and cliche.

The Songs Of Oana is published by Ettrick Forest Press and is available on Amazon.

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Christopher Crawford was born in Glasgow, Scotland. His poetry, essays and translations have most recently appeared in Agenda, The Cortland Review, Gutter, Envoi, Eyewear, Orbis, Vlak, The Literateur and the anthology From a Terrace in Prague (Litteraria Pragensia, 2011). His poems have been nominated in the US for the forthcoming Pushcart Prizes by both Rattle and Now Culture. He has lived in Prague since 2002.