2005 Winner: Kerry Hardie of Kilkenny

CITATION

On April 7, 2005, the University of St Thomas Center for Irish Studies presented the ninth O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award to Kerry Hardie, in private ceremonies at the university’s St. Paul campus. The following citation was read on that occasion:

Beginning nine years ago with Eavan  Boland, the O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry presented by the University of St. Thomas has come to be regarded as the preeminent North American honor for Irish poets and their poetry. The poets so far honored range far in their concerns and their artistry, but all are notable not only for their works but also for their dedication to the writing life in Ireland.  For the past decade, each award has renewed our sense of Ireland's ever more richly layered literary tradition.

More than that, each award has confirmed our own, and Ireland’s, fidelity to the craft and wisdom of letters. In this new century, everywhere the arts are challenged by commerce, by politics, and by diversion. Yet, by affirming the art of poetry and accomplishment of the poet, each O’Shaughnessy award recognizes that the painful realities of sudden economic and social transformation--in Ireland and elsewhere--may be addressed with assurance and grace. Kerry Hardie’s three collections from Gallery Press in County Meath—A Furious Place, Cry for the Hot Belly, and The Sky Didn’t Fall—span the decades of Ireland’s transformation since the late 1980s.

What we come together to celebrate on this April night is the threefold way in which Kerry Hardie has dedicated the strong and mystery-making line of poetry to the intimacies of human community, to the almost unnoticed edges of the natural world, and to the ever-more insistent claims of the spirit.

Our guest this evening started her writing life as a journalist in Northern Ireland in the watershed years of the 1980s. Her experience of living and writing in the midst of Europe’s longest-running conflict may explain why Hardie’s writing life guardedly returns, again and again, to poems consecrated to her self-selected community—one set apart from party, sect, and nation.  To borrow from Emily Dickinson, in those poems the “Soul selects her own Society.” And in those poems Hardie records moments of intimately revealed conversation with other poets, with friends, with family, whose names recur in the poems and in the dedications to the poems.

Each of Hardie’s collections turns to the mourning of the extended Irish elegy, and markedly so in The Sky Didn’t Fall, as the title suggests. Here, the meditative heartbreak of mourning gathers in that listening community in complex, then simplifying, and then assuring ways.

 

            Quiet there. December light.

            The long box stretched before the altar.

            Your arm about me and mine about you.  

 

In this other sense—not of naming, but of giving—Hardie’s unvarnished, plain-spoken lines show dedication. They insist on what the theologian Bonhöffer called “costly grace”--the difficult charity of giving up of limited resources of self to others.

Born in Singapore, raised and educated in Northern Ireland, and often resident in England and Scotland in her journalist years, Kerry Hardie now keeps her home-place in a corner of the rich and legend-laden county of Kilkenny.  Beginning with A Furious Place, in each of her collections Hardie gives certain place to local observation. Setting down the mystery of flowers weathering the thin Irish light or, as in “May,” just about to bloom:

 

            The yellow flare of furze on the near hill.

            and the first cream splatters of blossom

            high on the thorns where the day rests longest.     

 

To her acclaimed 2002 novel A Winter Marriage Hardie brought similar gifts of patient description and discovering insight.

 

Yet, for all her rootedness in the countryside of Kilkenny, many of Hardie’s poems have their eye on the edges of Ireland--Connemara and Kerry, Monaghan, and Derry—and certainly not on the metropolitan center.The garden's edge, or the river's edge, of emotional and moral experience claims her attention, as in "Late Spring.”  There, in the water meadow lies the pattern for some of  Hardie’s most intense, surprising, and cruelly vital poems.

 

            The pike is in the meadow by the river.

            He makes furious rushes. You can see his path gouged

            upwards into the flatness of the flood.

 

And in these lines the reader encounters a second sort of dedication that comes of  necessarily living life “slow,” as the American poet Floyd Skloot said, owing to chronic illness. Whether long or clipped short, Hardie's lines consecrate with words the edge where we all encounter feeling and exhaustion, loss and passion.

 

Notably, in her three collections Hardie has written her way toward a close with poems shining with a third sense of dedication—not devotion, exactly, but an affirmation of spiritual possibility. That dedication rewards the reader with difficulty and drama in “She Goes with her Brother to the Place of their Forebears.”  The poem closes with brother and sister drinking from a holy well—the former willingly, the latter resistingly:

 

                                                I drink with defiance

            And you drink without it. No one is watching, but God,

            And He doesn’t care, except for the heart’s intention.

 

That fierce impatience turns into something else in Cry for the Hot Belly, which winds through two extended elegies and arrives at resolution in “What’s Left.” Here, the garden untended becomes the Eden desired, and at the doorway to it the poet rededicates her life:

 

            I know more or less

            How to live through my life now.

            But I want to know how to live what’s left

            With my eyes open and my hands open                                

 

Plain-spoken, easy to hear, but hard to listen to and accept, such lines let us know why Hardie so often returns to the thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi. Hardie turns to legends of seventh-century Irish saints toward the end of The Sky Didn’t Fall, dedicated to the memory of the poet’s father.  In “Saint Fursey’s Song,” Hardie re-creates the saint’s farewell to monastic Ireland and closes it with a parable:

 

            And farewell to all who dwell in this land,

            Do not fear for us, for our souls are safe,

            And what are our bodies but little sod houses

            Putting shelter round fire and round love?                            

 

Generously, Hardie rounds off the poem in fortunate humor by letting St. Fursey finish his parable with this assurance:

 

            What harm then if the house should crumble?

            Fire and love cannot crumble,

            fire and love will burn always

            in one house or another

            lighting windows in the darkest night.  

 

For their trust in the capacities of intimate speech, for the solace of her poetry’s challenging assurances, and for the extraordinary ways in which her poems evince the three-fold dedication latent in all our lives, we now have the privilege of presenting to Kerry Hardie the ninth Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry given by the Center for Irish Studies of the University of St. Thomas.