HYMNS FROM THE WHIPPING POST. Gabriel Hart. Close to the Bone, 2022. 36 pages.
Gabriel Hart writes many things—fiction, non-fiction, reviews, journalism—but one whole unique tributary of his writing belongs to the discipline of song-writing. Those who know at least his work as the leader and frontman of the California band Jail Weddings know that he reaches his peak as a writer of lyrics when he weaves the lead voice together with a carpet of female backing singers, a seemingly lost art of the operas of long ago that had a particular recrudescence in the music of the 50s and 60s which Jail Weddings takes many sonic cues from. Rhyme is the usual territory stalked by songwriters, something to give unification and closure and order to the verbal component of a song, a rhythmic hook for the listener to hang their minds on.
Hart as a poet also indulges in rhyme forms but because they are on the page and not necessarily in our headphones, the rhymes manifest in a different way, lines more blurred and dependent on their ending word’s internal vowels than on their ending consonants. Maybe this was so in the songs but it doesn’t meet our senses there as it does here, written down. In this way the rhyming can be looser, more relaxed, and perhaps more assured by the long worn verbal grooves of the experienced songwriter’s composing mind. These are not the first rhymes that Hart has written, clearly.
Part of the pleasure of reading this collection, not in every poem of course, but in many of them, is in paying attention to the emergence of the rhyme at the end of a variable line, waiting for it to reveal a lattice of sense that unfolds on its own time. For example, in the poem “Projections in Blue”:
you earned your aging woman voodoo
I focused on closer context, was shocked into
submission, your soul and image
I stumbled out of my armor to commit seppuku
disemboweled from the pierce of your glare
giving myself completely to you
(isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?)
by surrendering, you don’t see the threat of finish
by extinguishing every nagging beware
Alright, Hart’s rhyming is a distinctive feature; those reading through the entire collection can see many examples of the form on the page and be impressed with the choices made (“sculpted” is rhymed with “culprit” in the above mentioned poem). What about the content? What does Hart write about?
The impression one gets from the poems on display here is one of a somewhat jaded eye looking for meaning in reflections on lost relationships and experiences. Women once present are absent, and Hart’s speakers in poems like “Avoiding You in a Small Town, Pop. 2900” (great short poem) add their charcoal drawings to the inside of the cave for his heirs to make out their long-gone shapes. An outstanding poem is “The Other Men,” which is more narrative than some others, about a man meeting with a romantic rival in a public place, perhaps a tavern or someplace with a similar valence: “we sat and talked / easygoing like / real, actual men / trading war stories of mutual duress / everything, in fact, but the woman / in common” — a kind of tranquility until others enter and comment how the two men meeting there are like war buddies and “that crazy bitch—the Vietnam!” Some peaceful detente was shattered by outside parties, perhaps evidence that the polygon of love relationships, and the understandings among their corners, are often subject to scrutiny from individuals not directly involved, “the other men.”
There are twenty-six such poems in Hymns from the Whipping Post, and most work to uncover such insights, like excavations at the site of an outpost that has receded under years of accumulating dust and desert plant-growth. The dust and plant-growth is life, experience that hides the buildings, treasures, and skeletons of the past. Hart’s musical instincts here in this collection have been pared back to buzzing nighttime meditative quiet and the page and the ghostly echoing canyons of the vowel-rhyme.