Kevin Hart is a prodigious figure on the international intellectual landscape. His award-winning poetry, collected in eleven collections and chapbooks of poetry dating back to 1978, is matched by his output as an internationally recognized critic and philosopher. He has published highly respected studies of Jacques Derrida, Samuel Johnson and most recently French literary critic and philosopher Maurice Blanchot. Having taught in Australia for years, in 2001 Hart left to take up a chair in English Literature at Notre Dame University. His departure was a great loss for the intellectual life of Australia. Nevertheless, Hart’s most recent collection Flame Tree returns to Australia, inhabiting the heat of Brisbane, the borderless regions of the deserts, and the inner-city life of Melbourne.
Kevin Hart’s poetry is a rare gift. Bringing together deep contemplation and worldly experience, an ability to give the self up to the unknowable coupled with a rigorous engagement with the abstract and spiritual. It is a bold song singing the open heart and open mind. Hart’s poetry is lucid and accessible while giving voice to rich depths where mystery and being coalesce. It approaches the unapproachable, the impossible borders of experience, through praise and song, and sets the everyday experience of the real world in close proximity to a deeper world of spirit.
Among his earlier works, one of the poems presented here, ‘The Room’, exemplifies the careful balance Hart achieves between mystery and the real. The house, the extraneous noise of the cricket’s grief, the prayer, peace and sleep of the poem, close around the closed room, bearing witness to the unrepresentable presence at the centre of the poems and house alike. The room is given as essential and unknowable, a mystery at the centre of things, which defies the ownership so clearly stated in the first line, and displaces the speaker.
It is difficult, knowing Hart’s long study into phenomenology, not to draw from the development of the image of the house a resonance with Heidegger’s dictum that “language is the house of Being”, and so perhaps to trace a path to the notion that the living and language share this central abiding mystery; that at the centre of each absence dwells, defying and denying ownership, property, and mastery. It is a mystery that haunts being and language equally, that dispossesses us, that waits, closed, as a promise and a threat, a blessing and a wound. There is an interesting note to this poem. Several years after its first publication, Hart received a letter from a South American thanking him for the poem. In the letter the man stated that ‘The Room’ had sustained the man during a period of several months’ detention and torture at the hands of the local military. It seems that there is no knowing where language will lead, what will be saved by words or how a poem is to be read. It is difficult to estimate the political charge of a poem, its possible impact outside of the context, the world in which it originated.
Harold Bloom stated on the publication of Flame Tree, “Kevin Hart is one of the major living poets of the English language . . . he is a visionary of desire and its limits.” Hart’s poetry is a song given to common human experiences of love and mourning, the fullness, both human and spiritual, of being in the world. It is not limited by national or temporal boundaries, it is a part of a larger song – that sung by Bonnefoy or St John of the Cross, Hölderlin or the Torah – that stretches back and forth through the experience and literature of the worlds we inhabit within this world.
The last day
Three Poems from Dark Retreat
The Departure (1978)
The Lines of the Hand (1981)
Your Shadow (1984)
New and Selected Poems (1994)
Dark Angel (1996)
Nineteen Songs (1999)
Wicked Heat (1999)
Flame Tree (2002)
Night Music (2004)
The Trespass of the Sign (1989)
A.D. Hope (1992)
Losing the Power to Say ‘I’ (1996)
Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property (1999)
How to Read a Page of Boswell (2000)
The Impossible (2004)
Nowhere Without No: In Memory of Maurice Blanchot (editor; 2004)
Postmodernism: A Beginner’s Guide (2004)
The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the sacred (2004)
Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (with Yvonne Sherwood, 2004)
The Buried Harbour: Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1990)
The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse (1994)
An interview of Kevin Hart with Australian poet and critic David McCooey
An interview of Kevin Hart with Australian poet John Kinsella
Philosophy and Scripture
Some of Kevin Hart’s critical material – ‘The Gospel of L’Arrêt du Mort’
Some of Kevin Hart’s critical material – ‘The Experience of the Kingdom of God’
A review of the tribute to Maurice Blanchot edited by Kevin Hart (Nowhere Without No: In Memory of Maurice Blanchot)