by Jee Leong Koh
Bob Hart passed away on the morning of August 13, 2014. It was a Saturday. He was 83. Born in 1931, he grew up in Harlem, on 145th Street, 142nd Street, and 158th Street, he said, as if to impress on you that every street in Harlem was its own neighborhood. He joined the army when he was 21. While American soldiers were dying in Korea, he was lucky to be stationed in Germany. When I knew him, he was sorting mail for a small company in Midtown West, and living in Brooklyn.
I first met him at a Pink Pony reading in Cornelia Street Café, in the Village, in 2005. Or rather, it’d be more accurate to say that I first heard him. I was fresh out of the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and was attending various open readings around town. His mellifluous voice at the mike was strikingly different from anything that had gone before. It made me sit up and take note. You know the sensation when you know you are hearing poetry and not prose? Bob Hart never read any prose; he was all poetry. The writing was lyrical, exploratory, musical, and witty. It was inspired by the greats such as Shakespeare and Donne. The delivery, here I will risk a stereotype for the sake of truth, was jazzy.
Pink Pony became my Friday Night Lights and I was always eager to watch Bob’s play, together with other first-stringers such as Jay Chollick, Brant Lyon, Jane Ormerod, Thomas Fucaloro, Betsy Harrington, and Adriana Scopino. You paid $6 for entry and a house pour, and signed up in Jackie Sheeler’s lined ledger. Bob usually read about a third of the way through. Always decked out in his multi-colored vest, he would spring to the tiny stage when called. He was surprisingly spry for someone his age. Tall and angular, he read from his sheet of paper, as if improvising, a poem about spring, a woman racecar driver, or a Winslow Homer painting.
I got to know the man a little better when I edited and published his second book, Lightly in the Good of Day (Bench Press, 2010). After I asked to see his poems, he gave me a cardboard box filled with tissue-thin sheets of paper, covered with slanty handwriting in blue or black ink from a ballpoint pen. The box contained over a decade of writing. He dated his poems, and the revisions, and so I could see that he wrote almost every day for long stretches of time. He was ever so gracious when I approached him with suggestions for edits. Some he accepted calmly, others he rejected firmly. We would meet in a café in Hell’s Kitchen to go over the poems. Bob did not do email; he had no Internet at home.
Our conversations hewed pretty closely to the poems but he would tell me, once in a while, about his involvement in Christian Science. I must admit I listened with only half an ear, ignorant and dismissive of what I had always taken to be a Christian cult. But now I see how vital Christian Science is to his writing. “Yes / I like the concept of / a healthy body,” Bob begins in one poem, “and a not too polluted planet.” The influence goes, however, beyond bold statement; it recurs throughout his poetry as the division between mind and the material world. The sprites, fairies and angels that inhabit Bob’s poems are elusive ways of imagining the redemption of the earth. What transforms religion into poetry is Bob’s own skepticism toward the articles of his faith. He likes the concept of a healthy body, as quoted above, but in the same poem, he admits that he loves “the abhorred” too, and shows its appeal through a lustrously dark image:
Places wired walled and
dedicated to the closeness of despair
with their grey and black arrival beds.
Like so many strong religious poets, he made poetry out of his doubts. An angel has a double face, the title of the poem reminds us. As his editor, I regret not giving his religion its due in a critical preface for his book. I was guilty of condescension.
Indeed it was easy to underestimate Bob Hart. He was so modest, soft-spoken, and self-effacing. He was always quick to give credit to others. One of my most vivid memories of Bob was how he leapt forward at the end of a Pink Pony reading to praise and thank a reader whose work he particularly liked. He was a generous man, and gave as much of himself as we could find room in us to receive. The following poem, which closes his book Lightly in the Good of Day, shows us the various kinds of generosities.
9:15 SOLD OUT
by Bob Hart
The 9:15 show is sold out.
If we could crowd but not crowd into the theater
like angels on the head of a pin
then everyone in the world could see this movie
all at once
and it need never be shown again
except to see it twice.
Everyone in the universe could see it
from all the three hundred billion galaxies;
and all the clustered souls outside
that make this great expanse seem like a bean
could share this theater too to see this show
At 9:15 eternity could begin,
all souls excited at the “now upon a time.”
Something begun to change into forever,
characters that one could see and be, what
they would, and the good and ugly things
they could acquire
along with the glory or the gloom.
The watching souls could shudder at the idea of extinction,
of having been and then to be no more
thus giving adventure to the precipice and to the darkness.
And all that light for living sparkles to be born!
for entities from who knows when
to warn or promise futures for
the paths no one had thought of,
rewards that were rewards cause someone said so
and foolishness one had to learn to laugh at,
its ends being so puzzling to conceive.
The show could last one second or a half a second
or, being very real, go on and never end—
whatever satisfied the style of storytelling.
One third of this great audience
could leave in a third of an instant—less!—
on the satisfied tide of foreknowing at once
all that could happen in any number of forevers,
coming out just cold and hot with the experience!
“I like the play of substance and space,” says
someone: “Lots of Beauty and
lots of Never.”
“9:15 Sold Out” appears in Lightly in the Good of Day by Bob Hart (New York: Bench Press, 2010)
Bob Hart grew up in Harlem, on 145th Street, 142nd Street and 158th Street. He served in the army from 1952 to 1954, and was stationed in Germany during the Korean War. He died in 2014. His first book of poems was called Acrobat. Lightly in the Good of Day was his second book.