Kenneth Hart’s ‘Uh Oh Time’
Uh Oh Time
by Kenneth Hart
Anhinga Press, 98 pages, $15.00
For Kenneth Hart and for the sake of this review let’s assume a whole lot is invested in naming things. Whether or not we admit to liking on any conscious level the name of a book or a poem, their names affect us on important emotional and intellectual levels. They shape our expectations and they alter the phenomenology of reading. After reading Hart’s collection Uh Oh Time, winner of the 2007 Anhinga Prize for Poetry, I felt particularly compelled to think about the type of work such a name as Uh Oh Time performs on my level of enjoyment and on my interpretations of the poems. While this review won’t be in any way a case study for the significance of a title I do wish to use this particular title as a skeletal structure for the review in order to exemplify how the title Uh Oh Time represented many of the book’s most compelling qualities but also some of its insipid and weak ones as well.
Let me first say that I plan to focus on the title because I wasn’t immediately grabbed by it and because it didn’t initially demand that I pick up the book. Before I read the book the title felt juvenile and bland. Alas I read on and the title began to intrigue me. Each poem felt like another meditation on the title.
Matched with the cover’s painting Flying on a Big Red Bird by George Pali the phrase “uh oh time” evokes a book chock full of bizarre albeit imaginative children’s stories. I expected something surreal, something a little silly too. Upon several readings the childhood innocence and surreal curiosity initially suggested by the cover remained intact as a strong influence throughout. A fair amount of nostalgia such as in “Nat & Forrest” when the speaker confronts a memory of a summer working for his father but the nostalgia never feels contrived and always productive. In fact, Hart stokes the very foundational fires of each with these qualities, allowing grown-up settings and people to feel the surge of some untarnished curiosity. This allows Hart to explore a wide range of played-out topics from the pastoral and the spiritual to the domestic without sounding stale (at least most of the time).
While this may not seem like a brand new or unique implication in the contemporary world of poetry, Hart’s execution is genuinely compelling because it constantly forces us to reconsider whether or not the present action of a poem appears to be very active at all. In “Damaged Goods” the speaker is asked by a friend, “Is it okay for a guy to kiss me on the first night?” (47). While the poem informs us of her husband’s affair, the messy divorce, and her two children, the poem’s heart is the act of starting over that manifests itself in the form of this delicate question. The poem’s presence situates itself not only after “the fights, sleepless nights, and the tears” but also in front of these tragic moments (47). Hart truly thrives by picking and choosing what actions to include and which ones to dangle somewhere else in the reader’s constructive imagination to manipulate a nuanced background of moments.
Each poem encapsulates an awkward, confusing or otherwise uncomfortable moment in which both speaker and reader navigate the difficult question that is, “now what?” In other words – an “uh oh time,” an 89-page collection of “uh oh times.” Navigating the awkward and uncomfortable rather than the tragic, Kenneth Hart’s Uh Oh Time captures the moments when we settle in with heartbreak, fear, or triumph while we consider what to do next.
In “The Pool” Hart revels in such awkward and uncomfortable joy. The poem’s plot is fairly obvious – a “freckled adolescent / pool attendant” catches a glimpse of a mother scolding her children (46). In doing so the mother reveals “something he’ll replay later / in the quiet of his room” (46). Because the mother’s act of scolding is interpreted differently by the pool attendant as an act of exposure the reader gains a multi-faceted perspective on the scene. Imagistic details such as “Mother’s bikini strap-marks across / her unstrapped back” also help to fully realize the dynamic wholeness of this scene (46). We realize that one present action is actually multiple and the moment becomes more exciting and realistic as a complex system of past, present and future moments.
“The Pool” is a wonderful example of Hart’s selection of action as it relates to changing perspective but it also reveals a weakness that I felt haunted several poems. Had the poem stayed with the mother’s embarrassment or ignorance to being noticed the end would be entirely different. With a sudden abundance of alliteration in the last two lines, “stinging-skin along shirt sleeves” and “too-tight trunks,” the ending is certainly aesthetically pleasing (46). However, I felt that like many of the other poems’ endings it lacks a needed push into more dangerous territory. The end feels too easy and too expected for a white, male American poet to write. At the risk of sounding overly critical to Hart, I admit that the end to this poem feels stagnant because it refuses to step outside of its own safety zone.
Several other poems that deal with female characters have similarly mixed results. “The Russian Women,” for example, attempts to intellectualize strippers in order to spin the assumptions of said dancers. The male protagonist discusses literature with the girls, but he soon compares the names of writers he dishes out to bait – “each name / I hang out like a dollar bill” (54). The end, again, leaves a sour taste in my mouth because the male speaker has the last word on the dancers:
Squeezing her hand on my thigh, she flounced
to the stage in her thin-strapped, satin slip
which rode up over her bottom as she bent in two,
and hooked her fingers around the spikes of her heels (55).
As he describes her dance she becomes familiar as an anonymous collection of glorified objects. Let me explain that my criticism stems not simply from an ideological standpoint either because many other of the poem’s endings felt familiar without necessarily being offensive in anyway. Representing women as hyper-sexualized albeit smart(er) beings is already an all too familiar incident everywhere we look in popular culture so it’s saddening to watch it occur in the form of poetry where the likelihood for new thought processes seems so high, seems so very within the grasp of a talented poet such as Hart. As a reader of poetry I am both offended and bored by endings like these.
To borrow from the book’s title once more, these are what I consider the book’s other “uh oh times.” I consider these “uh oh times” because they feel mishandled, safe, and familiar. They feel familiar because they don’t direct the reader to new ways of thinking or seeing the world, which felt disappointing in the context of otherwise exciting poetry.
These kinds of endings are few and far in between but are glaring amongst personal favorites such as “Tick,” “This Religion,” “Ashes” and “Nat & Forrest.” Love and lust are always taboo subjects to toy with and more often than not Uh Oh Time handles the material with a Thomas Lux-like affection, fascination and genuine care. The confessionary “Glance” is one such example in which the speaker recounts lusting over a student and in the process of writing owns up to “an old self, me” (66). Or in the prose poem, “Tools,” that ends with the image of a woman’s lime green t-shirt that would look better on an old lover, “the flesh, that other color, seen where you slice it open with a knife, bright translucence, sucking the light out of the room” is a majestic and breathtaking finish (79).
Uh Oh Time is a remarkable read about facing conflicts as opposed to the conflicts themselves. While several poems fail to push new boundaries for me I hope that you will pick this book up because there is much pleasure to gain from its many successes. I hope when you do sit down to read Kenneth Hart’s book that you will keep in mind both my praises and my criticisms. Look for your own “uh oh times” and give a second or two to consider what to do next, or how to start over.