Review: “A Cut-and-Paste Country” by Kathleen Hart

reviewed by Christine H. Boldt

Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 2016. ISBN:9780996930505.
Paperback. 98 pp. Inaugural winner of the Jacapone da Todi Poetry Prize.

How does a person create a life? The characters in Kathleen Hart’s poetry collection, A Cut-and-Paste Country, do just that: the rabbi who glues together pictures of fine art snipped from magazines, and thus honors his old country parents who, as seamstress and tinsmith, sewed and soldered lives for themselves; the man who mounts his collection of cartes de visite and yearns to catch the essence of his lost father; the artist who can no longer paint the natural landscapes he loves, but directs others to build a house whose windows frame scenes he might have painted; another whose paintings are composites of all he has seen and cherished as he travels about his city. All the historical figures whose stories Hart relates are dedicated to blending their strengths, their obsessions, and their failures into monuments they hope will preserve, for a while, what time will ultimately destroy.

Each poem that treats an historic figure has also been constructed by the author from a variety of sources, another echo of “cut-and-paste.” In turn, the composite nature of the book mirrors both the activities of the characters in individual poems, and those of the author’s persona, who appears, now and again, struggling to patch her way to wholeness as she emulates, or at least considers, the behaviors she highlights in her characters.  Hart tells us that reaching integrity requires tearing one’s self down, reinventing that self, and trying yet again. And scoundrels, she discovers, can do this just as well as people of principle. The author acknowledges that destiny may have a hand in undoing the most marvelously constructed plans. But often there are moments of grace granted to those who are not even enough in tune with their lives to ask for them.

Keeping so many themes going at once—sincere folk and villains, the shortcomings of historical figures and personal sorrows, the presence and absence of grace, the upbeat and the desperate—is no easy task, yet Hart skillfully handles this balancing act. Character-driven poems and personal reflections alternate in a fluid pattern as if in conversation with each other, creating an energy that keeps the reader moving forward through the collection. At the same time, the recurrence of such visual imagery as blowing blossoms and rattling freight cars that appear against many different horizons, give this book the feeling of a patchwork quilt, within which a piece of someone’s favorite work shirt might appear in one square after another.

Watching Hart’s characters reach and fail, fumble and mend, and observing as the author cuts and pastes versions of herself that echo the efforts of those whose lives she details, readers may find it is difficult to resist inquiry into their own attempts with scissors and glue. Where do we draw the lines between dedication and obsession? Do we measure our successes in effort expended, or production accomplished? Is the patched thing we make of ourselves worthy of praise? Will depression or financial ruin put an end to us? Or will we cobble ourselves together, yet again? And how?

Hart does not leave us without answers. In some of her most joyous poems there are clues to what keeps her characters, and her own persona, recreating their lives: sun flowers in a field, “a sense of honor and proportion,” brief moments when we seem to be operating in harmony with the world, others when we are able to “see the individual thing and its structure at the same time.” Though the author acknowledges that “hearts are designed to dissolve,” that “one snowfall collapses into another,” still she celebrates the perseverance of the denizens of her patched-together country.

Some of these poems, while perfectly at home in the world Hart has created, could stand by themselves as joyous affirmations. Two of my favorites are “The Unreliable Witness,” which gently tweaks the poems of William Carlos Williams, and “Also Celebrate,” which manages to be an ecstatic salute both to everyday miracles and to the circle of life.

Hart’s book will charm anyone who has stumbled and gotten up in the course of constructing his or her life, but will be of special interest to Windhover readers because of the framework in which the author has carefully placed it. The very first citizen of A Cut-and-Paste Country whom Hart describes is an architect seeking to conform his life and his buildings, cobbled together though they may be, to Psalm 104, which he has by heart. The Psalms, the architect knows, are

                                                                    . . . generous
enough for additions and deletions or revisions and
can adapt to any language or tempo, being propelled,
as they are by design which varies and repeats,
a design which is carried out through breath,
which is spirit.

The book ends with the story of another re-inventor of self, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe whose journey, from balloon-designer, to explorer, to banker, to creator of an ice machine, illustrates the typically restless energy of Hart’s characters. By the end of his poem, he acknowledges that his inventions all arise from a vision he had at the very beginning of his life, and that “his help [is] from the Lord.” Here Hart affirms the integrity with which we all cut and paste, and declares that we are not alone in our endeavor.

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CHRISTINE H. BOLDT is a retired librarian who has lived in Central Texas for more than thirty years. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s, and lived in Italy during the 1970s. Christine has published in Christianity and Crisis, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and Working Mother. Her poetry has appeared in The Christian Century, Windhover, The Texas Poetry Calendar, and The Enigmatist. Her prize-winning poems are included in The Poetry Society of Texas Book of the Year (2015) and National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ Encore (2016).