Kerry Hardie

County Down poet confronts death and embraces nature in a prose and poetry reading at the Crescent Arts Centre

A few dozen poetry lovers have gathered in the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast to hear about death.

Kerry Hardie stands at the mic dressed in wide-topped boots, with a tunic over her trousers and a string strap across her front to a low slung bag that might otherwise have been a quiver. It might strike one as unlikely that a writer whose concerns are so bleak would have contrived this ensemble for effect.

Hardie intones her work with a voice that is full of tensions, a pitch that is high and frail yet steady and rhythmic and compelling.

Born in Singapore, Hardie has long called County Down home. She is preoccupied by death after losing her younger brother, who died of a heart attack in India. She speaks of the pain felt by his partner and child, and reads a long prose piece about grieving.

In 'After You Died', Hardie describes how she dipped her brother’s child into the waves of the sea as she, the big sister, had dipped him when she was 15-years-old.

In a prose piece, she recalls how once we wore black armbands to let everyone know that we were in another state of being, stricken by loss, seeing everything differently. Now we are expected to get over a death after the funeral.

The communal supports are removed, yet those who mourn live with a perpetual sense that death is close. Hardie describes this as a heightened awareness that is almost unbearable, but which one feels guilty about losing.

Her reflection on death starts with a description of an accident in which she fell into a bog hole to be deep in scummy water beside a decaying sheep. For days she could not remove the smell of death from her nostrils, and she came to think that some smells linger on us even after they're source has been washed away.

Throughout the reading, there are these anxious questions and observations about how we manage grief. ‘What do hands fumble for when dread comes calling?’(from 'Letter From The Old World'), for example. Hardie explains at one point that she had been sick and confined to bed for many years.

She invites her audience to reflect on the perpetual immanence of death and loss, and she does this with beautiful descriptions of the natural world and stabs of philosophical succinctness of the type you don’t hear down the pub.

The bigger paradox then is that Hardie is so cheerful, that she loves life and shares that feeling. In one poem, she speaks of walking through London and looking up, as one rarely does in a city, to catch a glimpse of a heron. These images are right through her work – ‘a drop of rain lay on a pleated leaf’, or ‘the skies were cities that formed and dispersed’.

Hardie's engagement as a poet is with imagination and a vision that refuses to be anything but starkly clear about mortality and grief, yet she is excited by nature and can share that excitement. What she has learnt, she says, is that ‘nowness is the only defence we have against the killing trap'.

Hardie's latest collection, The Ash and the Oak and the Wild Cherry Tree, is out now, published by The Gallery Press.