Reviewed by David Seter
Bursting from a railway tunnel into daylight I’ve often been shocked into the brightness of living. Trees seem leafier. Coffee shops beckon. Katherine Hastings takes the reader along for such a ride in her second collection Nighthawks. The journey progresses from New York City to Hastings’ home turf of Sonoma County, California, with stops along the way.
A critic shaking off the dust of library stacks might be tempted to call Hastings a poet’s poet. After all, the collection’s first poem “Central Park Zoo” begins “Dear Garcia Lorca” and concludes not much has changed since the poet’s visit to New York City in 1929. While a student at Columbia University, Lorca witnessed first-hand Black Tuesday, the stock market crash. In Hastings’ poem a llama paces its enclosure in the zoo with “no one to speak llama to”. A woman sits on a bank’s doorstep as if caged: “Only her tiny claw / with its sleeping cup of coins showed.” The woman’s frailty is such that Hastings wishes for the suffering to end and she apologizes to Lorca for that very thought.
Hastings explores the subject of grief from many angles, including a series of poems in memory of the victims of the Sandy Hook mass shooting. But where she becomes most accessible—the people’s poet—is in her treatment of how cancer diagnosis impacts relationships. In the poem “Perseid from a Park Bench”, two partners carry on a conversation while a meteor shower rains down. Wishing on falling stars may seem child’s play, but here it’s serious business:
Did you make a wish?
We humans do this,
place hope on a ball of dust
passing through a comet’s tail
The reader is given breathing room in the poem’s constructed space to consider what’s important, what’s dross. Yet the symbols here appear essential to the mood of vulnerability: turkey vultures circle the house; a wild turkey separated from its flock calls out from the roof; and a silver maple tree spears not only the roof but the stars. The tree ultimately must be felled, but the wish endures: for the partner, good health.
Again, there’s much for the poet-detective to consider in Hastings’ work: epigraphs to Kenneth Rexroth, William Matthews, Billy Collins, Charles Baudelaire, and Shu Ting. The poem “Stroke” includes an allusion to Walt Whitman’s “Sea Drift”. Hastings even takes on a form invented by Billy Collins—the paradelle—in her poem aptly named “Café Paradelle”.
In any café or journey through darkness, the poetry of Katherine Hastings provides good companionship. In Nighthawks she handles grief gently, using open phrasing to avoid cliché while coming close to saying the unsayable. In this, I’m reminded of Philip Larkin’s poem (The Trees) in which: “The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said”. Although the silver maple in Hastings’ work does not survive, in the manner of language it throws down its challenge. Its dead spears were once buds. But the space left behind is not empty, and the night not so impenetrable, because Katherine Hastings has given us the power to occupy that space called grief, by giving us the wings of a nighthawk feathered with the fire of living.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 17, Issue 1.
See all items about David Seter