Kerry Hardie is an award-winning poet and writer. Her collections include A Furious Place (Gallery Press 1996), Cry for the Hot Belly (Gallery Press 2000), The Sky Didn’t Fall (Gallery Press 2003), The Silence Came Close (Gallery Press 2006), Only This Room (Gallery Press 2009), and The Ash and the Oak and the Wild Cherry Tree (Gallery Press 2012).
Kerry’s latest collection The Zebra Stood in the Night was published by Bloodaxe in 2014.
Hi Kerry. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest collection The Zebra Stood in the Night with Bloodaxe. For the uninitiated, can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it hangs together as a collection?
The book is a sort of record that came out of a time of intense emotional compression caused by the sudden death of my youngest brother at the age of 46. I was, by coincidence, in the process of changing editors, so moving from Gallery to Bloodaxe was a bit like putting on a different coat for a different season.
Neil Astley had seen the essay I’d written about grief and he suggested using it, which meant that the whole book could be unambiguous in its intention to speak of mortality. For this reason the first poem, ‘Conditioning’, is about the uselessness of trying to insure against a future which is necessarily fatal, and the last poem, ‘Suns’, is about our inability to see our lives while we are still inside them.
Reading the poems there is a sense you are able to extract epiphanies from specific experiences – whether it be observing the behaviour of a slug (‘Sealed Vessel’), leaves falling from a tree (‘Leaf-fall’), laundry drying in the wind (‘Washing’), or a line of light on a lake (‘Reflection’). Do you subscribe to the idea that in order to arrive somewhere new in a poem, you must use something known or familiar as a starting point?
Not always but often. I may be looking at something familiar in a sort of absent, wondering way, and this very abstraction means that it unwinds in front of the inner eye as well as the outer one and leads me to a place that is enclosed in the initial observation but is not the same place. This is exactly what happens in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’—one of my earliest journeys into the marvel of what a poem can do.
There are also more abstract poems in that book, poems in which the ‘something known and familiar’ is inverted or pushed aside in order to see the emptiness at its core; and there are also narrative poems, which is a genre I am increasingly interested in.
A couple of the poems – ‘Vacances’ and ‘At The Musée Cluny’ – are ekphrastic responses to a painting and head sculptures. I’m curious if there are any areas of the fine arts that particularly inspire you or influence the way you approach and think about your own poetry craft?
I know a lot of artists and my husband is an artist as well as a writer, so I am used to being with people who have an intense visual awareness. And yes, it has often struck me that the writing of a poem and the painting of a picture or the making of a sculpture are similar in that there is a defined statement involved, a combination of vision and skill, that has clear borders within existing reality, although the resonances may continue beyond this reality.
With a novel the process is completely different, you have to sustain a whole range of ideas and inventions that must cohere into one extended form. Also a novel takes me years, and develops alongside the life I live while I am engaged on it. It is more like an orchestral piece, while a poem is more like a single song or air [or picture] that can, in some cases, make up a longer work.
Recently I wrote a poem in response to a spoken resumé outlined to me by the composer Barry Guy. He used this poem as the basis on which he developed his much more abstract and powerful orchestral piece which he called ‘The Blue Shroud‘. In this case the poem was the skeleton but the living breathing thing was his composition. Sometimes it is the other way round.
I very much like working with musicians as well as with artists. It is like accessing some sort of psychic internet, so that the work accumulates a power that is greater than either the words or the music by themselves. I found this working with the musicians David Power and Ciarán Somers, when we were putting together the radio piece ‘To Find a Heathen Place and Sound a Bell‘ that was broadcast by RTE last autumn.
The book closes with an essay and sequence of poems about your brother dying suddenly at a young age and the impact of its aftermath on yourself and his family. Can you tell us a bit more about how long it took to complete these poems, and were they more difficult to compose given their deeply personal subject matter?
My brother died very suddenly when he was making a short film in Delhi. His partner wanted a cremation in accordance with the Hindu tradition, and the arrangements were made with surprising ease and nobody said anything about not burying a Christian. The ceremony itself was both moving and appropriate, though it was also very raw because we actually saw his body burn. Also there was no padding—no family and friends, nothing familiar or comforting or irritating or tedious.
Afterwards we took the children to a park and fed the monkeys. Then there was the whole business of having to physically get both his family [the children were very young] and his ashes back to Ireland. I think the circumstances meant that I was both inside the experience and outside of it. And all the time I was talking to him, so in the poems I go on talking, because a relationship doesn’t just break off because one of you is physically dead.
These poems took about two years to write because I think that the sudden and totally unexpected death of someone very close is a bit like a depth charge going off in your psychic being and the shock waves go on permeating everything you do for at least the next couple of years, probably far more. Undoubtedly far more. Thinking about it now, I feel that you do not ‘get over’ an important death, but you may get round it.
Yes, they were hard to write in the sense that they were painful, but they were also curiously effortless. They seemed to appear on the page without much interference from me. They are really a record of the process of moving away from the first unbearable grief and regaining some sort of ‘normality’. This necessarily involves a double loss, because to be normal you have to become less acutely aware of the person for whom you grieve.
And I wanted to write something that spoke to everyone, because everyone has loss and everyone has pain and I didn’t want to ‘claim’ pain for myself but to touch on the universal. That is why the essay is appropriate. That is also why there is the poem about the Dresden dead placed right in the middle of the sequence; I simply made use of an image which I had carried in my head for a long time and which came to me when I was trying to write about the oddness of the body remaining when the person has gone.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to in the future?
I have been to almost nothing this year, I haven’t even done any readings, I’ve been trying to finish a novel which I have been writing for far too long. Fortunately poetry doesn’t depend on events and the two highlights of my reading must be Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Boys of The Bluehill and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. I’ve also greatly enjoyed Robert Pinsky’s Gulf Music and Elaine Feeney’s Where’s Katie?
I look forward to reading Joan Margarit’s new book [translated by Anna Crowe] and to the possibility of hearing them read together once more. Joan’s warmth contrasts dramatically with the hopelessness of much of his subject matter, and perfectly complements Anna’s lively but very slightly acid delivery of her wonderful translations.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve submitted a new poem called ‘Enemies’. It is about the habit of pain that we inflict on each other. It is a habit of individuals, and of nations. I hope it is as painful to read as it was to write.
When they are together now
they pick up stones.
They place them on their eyes and on their mouths.
Sometimes they choose
the small, flat, slatey ones from the damp sand.
Sometimes the round ones, smoothed by heaving seas.
There’s salt on them,
salt on the wind, salt on their blood-salt lips
that lick the stones and suck them so they gleam.
This is the salve they give, one to the other.