Uh Oh Time by Kenneth Hart


Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry (2007)

Engaged by contemporary American life at every level, from the down-and-out to the urban sublime, the poems in Kenneth Hart's Uh Oh Time have at their core a sensitive, lonely individual who has a marvelous way with words. Whether he is conversing with a Russian lap dancer, writing an ode to the diner, or analyzing a mayfly's husk on a shower curtain, the poet shows a genuine affection for his subjects -- an affection embodied in language that is always rich, complex, and various. His own name says it all. This is a poet with heart. -- Mark Jarman, Judge, 2007 Anhinga Prize for Poetry

Kenneth Hart's poems are so natural-seeming, so unpretentious, the reader isn't required to notice how beautifully-controlled and rendered they are. There's a ton of self-knowledge here, and generous, melancholy insight into human nature, and comedy too, but it is always mediated by the linguistic artfulness of real poetry: adventurous sentences, frequent shifts in scale, tone and intensity, constantly modulated perspective. Each one of these poems is what Stevens called "the cry of an occasion," an adventurous and lucid event which gives us pleasure and recognition. Kenneth Hart steps into American poetry with a freshness of substance and a distinctive style. -- Tony Hoagland

[Hart] shows readers that not only is he skilled in creating fresh images, but he also exhibits great facility with language. These are not typical first-book poems, filled with the angst of growing up. These narrative pieces run the gamut from cityscapes to rural backdrops, from urban sparrings in music stores and strip joints to examinations of bottoms of beer mugs and overfilled ticks. Hart's poems move from story to surprise with great skill, a "spot-on timing" that serves readers well. Often witty and ironic, the poems have plenty of sass and sarcasm to go around, but these are not all funny poems. There is a deep respect for humanity here and a deep loneliness from a life lived with loss as well as gain... This is a book written with skill and substance from a worthy new voice. -- Karla Huston, Library Journal


The Hinge

The personable, plucky, pale-skinned, slightly chunky teenage daughter 
of the Chinese couple who run the White Dragon Restaurant in Whitehorse 
wears a punk rock t-shirt, black nail polish and a studded belt, 
and translates my order 
from smooth Canadian-English to the kitchen, in Mandarin.

In white, flat-topped paper hats, the old guys back there -- probably her uncles -- 
start talking a loud, jagged, pot-lid banging, plate-clatter kind of talk, 
and heat up the wok and toss in my vegetables
with a grand hissing sound.

Her mother, wrinkled sparrow of a woman
with shiny skin, 
sits behind the cash register 
and rings up the ticket -- takes one of the pencils
sticking out of a half-pint soup container 
full of uncooked rice, 
and writes something down, says words to her husband
that sound like tissue-paper uncrinkling from a box packed with delicate glass;
he looks up from the Beijing newspaper in his lap, and nods once.

Call it the hinge of the daughter, growing up in two languages,
who turns on a well-oiled swivel
between an ancestral sea-journey

and Friday night smoking cigarettes outside the Esso mini-mart 
with friends who think 
the skinny guitarist on the new Fetid Rat CD is cute.

When she brings the tea to my table, 
I see pagodas and rickshaws etched on the side of the pot
as she pours the past into the present, then tells me, 
laying down the check, 
she's cool with either currency.


Nat & Forrest

Fourteen, most things still out of reach, 
I worked all summer hauling
buckets of tar up ladders, shouldered
bundles of shingles in brown paper wrappers,
apron after apron of one-inch nails.
By dusk each day, filled with heroes and cokes,
worn muscles pulled me down while the dark
blew through the humid van with the rattle of nail-cans
and toolboxes, squeak of old shocks, shifting
2x4's and propane bottles clanging, as I sat
on an overturned cement pail between Forrest and Nat.

A plate covered with foil waited at home,
whatever mom made that night; I'd reheat it
in our new microwave, eat alone in the bright
kitchen while she watched t.v. in the den.
Maybe I would read one of my new fishing magazines.
Another covered plate sat on the stove.
By the time dad got home to eat, I'd be
slouched before the tube, feet up, mumbling
one-word answers to his queries about the job.

Next morning, up at six, a honk at seven,
Nat greeted me with more cheer than Forrest
(whose skin paled a dusty black when hung over) -- 
joking, jabbering the whole drive to the job --
after getting out & letting me clamber over
the seat to my pail, with my paper lunch sack.
Once there I'd untie the ladders and unload
while they hooked on tool belts, sipped coffee
from Styrofoam cups, lit cigarettes, 
surveyed the worn shingles & blistered tar.
Up on the roof, everything ready, we'd sit on the peak,
watch the morning gather its blue-orange blaze
above whatever town we were in that day.
Nat would pull the rolling papers from his shirt pocket,
fill one with a dirty green weed that looked like oregano.
They'd light it, & I'd wait, shy in that smoky silence,
proud to figure in among that hazy ritual.

By summer's end, we'd fixed maybe fifty roofs.
I entered my freshman year, saved for a car.
At the first snows, Nat went to his wife in Norfolk,
and Forrest's next ten years with the company
did not ripen into dignity, though I learned
that power might be possessed by a man 
of few words, if those words were kind

and his arms you worked alongside were strong. 
I raise my hand to them now,
no longer blistered, those heroes of my boyhood
who brought me through from dawn's blaze
to evening's pale finish, in the summer 
of my fourteenth year, when I had no language
for my rage, when I couldn't speak to my father,
when my suburban troubles knew nothing
of two black men living in Newark, N.J.,
city of my birth, from which we exiled ourselves
before the riots, now crumbling into history -- in the summer
of my fourteenth year, when two men cooled my fears
with my first beer, and whose only truths I shared
were those about our common enemy,
the man, our boss, my father. 

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