“Watermark: Poems,” by Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

With his newest collection, Watermark: Poems (Madville Publishing April 14, 2022), Jeff Hardin does something different—and he does it exceptionally well. That is, Hardin, an award-winning poet with six prior published collections, creates his own unique poetic structure in the Watermark selections. In this creative style, in addition to his free verse phrases written in a traditional horizonal format, Hardin uses a short phrase on the vertical side which he calls a watermark and these vertical words become incorporated into the whole poem. The vertical phrases come from a variety of sources such as Emily Dickinson, the Bible, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mary Oliver among others. While these quotes are easily read alone on the left-hand side of the poem, they are also very much a part of the whole poem.

While his Watermark collection is a 2022 publication, Hardin explains that he wrote his first watermark poem in 2004. As Hardin says, “[U]sing the phrase ‘How quiet must I be,’ a line from a failed poem that, at first, I thought I would make the title of a new poem, but when I wrote it at the top of a page, I suddenly wondered what would happen if I wrote the words vertically down the left-hand margin. Suddenly, a ‘whispered prayer,’ a subliminal message, might be heard back behind the poem.”

In the hands of a lesser talent, this vertical/horizonal technique could have become gimmicky, but Hardin’s deft handling, his precision with words, and his meditative imagination make his watermark poems both intricate and radiant. There runs through these poems a kind of spiritual, visionary quality in which a sense of mystery, wonder, and even joy prevail. These poems are, quite simply, lovely and grow so more fully with subsequent readings. The poems in Watermark are inventive in word and form, captivating, and luminous, and well worth the delightful effort of reading them vertically, horizontally, and then as a whole—first one way, then another, and yet still another.

The multiple mysteries involved with being and not being are dominant themes as reflected in many poems and even in such titles as “For When the Days Seem Absent Any Answer.” Hardin expresses “this aching ache to know” in “To Begin,” and in “Gladness,” he writes of “this not ,knowing how far my not-knowing might reach.” This theme is also used in the watermark snippets in “Into Nothing of My Own Making,” with the vertical phrase “To make known the mystery,” which is from Ephesians 6:19.

While addressing this knowing/not-knowing theme within his poems, Hardin accepthat there is much we can never know. For example, in “What the River Says,” with its vertical watermark of “that is what I say,” the poet recognizes the “one more mystery” of waking up and pondering that “I cannot know. / That I remain / while others fell away / is God’s great secret…” In “Perfect Silence,” he writes that while he once “strove / to touch mystery upon its face,” he “became / as one who never tried.”

There’s an equilibrium in the poet’s quests, so that “this ache to reach up / out of ourselves,” in “The Bounds of Belief” is counterbalanced by “the sway of my arms not reaching to hold anything” in the poem “Not Reaching to Hold Anything.” In that, his use of reaching and not reaching seems to reflect both the yearning to solve the mystery of being and not-being, as well as the acceptance that he might never fully understand. As expressed in “As Though Each Word Were an Epiphany,” the poet might “want to live / to understand what meaning is, / how much eternity / will fit inside a thought.” Yet this desire to know and understand is often stifled. Or, as the poem “Fine Distinction” notes: “I don’t ask not believing, just not knowing.”

In several of his poems, Hardin raises familiar questions such as this opening query from the poem “Perfect Silence,” with its watermark vertical phrase from Walt Whitman of “How soon unaccountable, I became.” In that poem, the poet asks: “How / can it be my own existence / is both a gift to enjoy, / to inhabit fully, / but also a burden / to cast aside?” However universal such questions might be, Hardin makes them immensely personal and unique through his use of imagery and such precise phrases as “a low limb trying to lift itself to touch an endless sky.”

Frequent use of images from nature which will resonate with readers is something Hardin does exceptionally well in Watermark as he also does in his prior poetry collections. For example, in one of his most poignant poems, “Trying to Hear a Prayer,” he speaks of “bits of driftwood / shore-caught and careless” as he writes of trying to overhear the words a dying friend who is praying “beneath a mountain’s trees.” Some of Hardin’s images—farm birds on a fence, a single-tined combine, hackberries and seedheads, “tadpoles trailing the silt,” the eddies and sandbars in a creek—reflect his rural Tennessee background. Other images such as birds frolicking in a parking lot puddle reflect a boisterous delight in it all. There are also frequent images evoking loneliness—”old men on town-square benches” and the “man on the rooftop / others mistake for a jumper.”

Within his aching questionings and use of natural images, Hardin’s poems often suggest a spiritual, optimistic hope, such as reflected in the title “I Suppose One Day I’ll Know for Sure.” And in “Fine Distinction,” Hardin notes that “I doubt this thrust to know what can’t be known is my / invention; / for if it were, I’d let it go, / do something mindless— / catch falling leaves, for instance, / and toss them back / into the trees, / over and over till I could feel their shade again.”

These spiritual, optimistic moments in the poems are often combined with wonder, gratitude, and joy. In his poem, “Behind the Story Being Told,” Hardin takes pleasure in “helping turtles cross the road” where then one can “feel / even ditch grass brush along / one of the side-turned faces / … on an earth so plentiful / it only makes sense to trust what’s out ahead.” Similarly, in “As Much or as Little,” he celebrates “another spring upon me, / redbuds out back / beginning to catch fire, / I feel more here / than ever, …”

Widely published and with an impressive collection of accolades, Hardin is a professor of English at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, TN. He holds a Masters in Fine Arts in poetry from The University of Alabama, and is originally from Hardin County in Tennessee. An editor of the online journal One, Hardin has six prior poetry collections including all Sanctuary, recipient of the Nicholas Roerich Prize from Story Line Press; Notes for a Praise Book, selected by Toi Derricotte and published by Jacar Press; Restoring the Narrative, which received the Donald Justice Poetry Prize; Small RevolutionNo Other Kind of World, recipient of the X. J. Kennedy Prize: and A Clearing Space in the Middle of Being, as well as four chapbooks: Generosity for a Later Generation (Seven Kitchens Press, 2021), Until That Yellow Bird Returns (Red Hydra Press, 2015), Deep in the Shallows (GreenTower Press, 2002), and The Slow Hill Out (Pudding House, 2003).

Hardin lists the source of each of the vertical watermark phrases in the end of the book, though many will be recognized by readers.

Perhaps with any poetry review, the truest way to convey the depth and beauty of any collection is to let a poem speak for itself. Within Watermark, each poem carries a message and a music that makes it unique, so it is hard to select a representative poem. Nonetheless, “Blank Page,” with its easily recognized Robert Frost quote in the vertical phrasing, is offered at this link as but one example of the well-crafted, moving, and eloquent poems in Hardin’s new collection.


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