Simon Pettet’s HEARTH

Ralph Hawkins

Simon Pettet’s HEARTH, Talisman House Publishers, 2008, ISBN: 978-1-58498-061-2

This book covers Pettet’s complete oeuvre from the late 1970’s to the present day. The first thing to note is what a delightful and pleasurable read it is. Reading it is to track and keep pace with the concerns and circumstances of a life, and that life being primarily the life of a poet. A poet, in this case, who identifies with others who are outsiders for a variety of conditional reasons. Marginalities and marginal figures crop up throughout the work. The nature of the peripheral becomes of central concern. The peripheral would be without a hearth.

What animates these poems, the features of these poems, is a reaching out for love (and the reaching out of love), for contact, not only with the human but with the world as it indefinably is in its full mystery and ponderableness. The writing is a connection from a form of isolation, a poetic isolation (the meditative moment), in that it is through the act of writing (the writing moment) where attention becomes focused on its own preoccupations, perceptions and apperceptions. These poems may well be indicative of the search for a hearth which they may well define.

There is something filmic in the opening poetry of Lyrical Poetry – there are many impressions which seem composed of stills, snapshots or (painted) pictures. There is a twofold terseness, a compactness of image and word, inherent in these early poems (and a terseness throughout) which has its grounding perhaps in a vein of Williams and the line shape and content of some of the Objectivists. The differences in the form of image(s), in how the mobile or static can be written, has to do with densities. These pictures (the single image, the multiple,) enclose urban narratives which transgress the self sufficient picture to point (direct) and hint at more – sometimes this more can be a sympathetic emotion, a mood or a condition of Being.

Early on the poems seem to contain two distinct and positive dynamics which meld and conjoin in the later poetry. On one hand the direct world of material observation. The poetry of externality. The pictures we see in our reading. And on the other hand the poetry which discusses or unconceals its internalities – its weave of thought, its play of words, the poet’s concern(s). These would be the thoughts we think in our thinking (abstracts, synthetics, metaphysics).

Looking, watching or the more active encountering, is an engaged preoccupation. And although Lyrical Poetry has two locations, London and NYC (the poet here having left one physical hearth for another), the tone and written image description of these poems carry a distinct American influence and a particular NYC prosodic accent. The images at times seem Hopperish (Nighthawks, Automat, Night Windows), being distinctly atmospheric and personal. We are late at night or in the early morning, we are voyeuristic as in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (the Greenwich Village set of which looks a particularly Hopperish construction). This poem then is not a black and white photograph, although it contains stills, but is more Technicolor.

Four the clock the city
Bears the dread of furious
Winter like a scar is opened
Up and proudly flies it
Teeming garbage –
Cans the soot –
Encrusted magazines which blow
Across the street wrap
Into hollows
In our faces
We look up and several stories spy
A man intent on what
We cannot see
A child perhaps
A woman washing windows            (p.17)
Early on, Pettet’s management of sound is evident, everything is placed for maximum resonation and the line break plays and line starts point us in several directions. The language make-up charts Pettet’s vernacular shift from London to NYC. The poetry in its content and language choice carries the trace of new American influences without abandoning its original roots which are Romantic and particularly Blakean. In a strange reversal in crossing the Atlantic Pettet’s Nocturne is decidedly Whistlerish, written in London November 1976. It is a poem which points to departure.

These modes of observation are part of the process of living in and becoming familiar with new physical, intellectual and poetic environments. The immediate locus of these early poems is the Lower East Side – especially East 12th St where he has now lived for over thirty years. These poems clarify this ‘growing familiar’ with 12th St and the surrounding neighbourhood,
it gets dark, fair
distance back to 12th Street
but I make it!            (p.37)

Some withered 3rd Ave hooker perhaps?            (p.36)

I dreamt I saw my doppelganger
On East 12th Street            (p.39)
The move to environs of NYC becomes emblematic of looking, of coming to terms with the new of New York as in Stuyvesant Park Studies (p.40). The language here, the image moving from the painting towards the photograph,
old    anxious    and thin      grey-haired in white
suede hat    and white fine coat    dull stockings
These lines contain Berriganisms but not Berrigan’s contemporality. These early constructions seems to portray an earlier era than the 1970’s/80’s. But the enclosing end date of the poem, August 30 1980 / (how round that date) indicates an increasing consciousness towards the written rather than the pictured.

The next section of the book, Twenty One Love, explores a theme which is never far away in Pettet’s poetic – that which appears and disappears, that which is seen and deeply felt. The fleeting and the transitory become more and more the focus of the attendant self. Love is such a thing (love it would seem is the centre of the hearth) and the poet both tries to distil it or expose its essence – in this he exposes its fleetingness. Does the lyric try to capture the ‘moment’ or momentariness of a Heideggarian Dasein? Things are always disappearing from the picture.
combining the picture of a man with silvery hair and
argumentative eyes, and a man who
ran out on his wife, and thus - likewise literally –
disappeared from the picture            (p.86)
This fleetingness, of whatever nature, felt or seen, this experiential recognisable moment, which is present and non-present, is a binding element in Pettet’s work. Fleetingness guides us into a precise acknowledgement of what may be taken as ‘simple things’, perhaps the ordinary and the everyday, and then the birds / and the bells / and the bark of a dog (p.71) –things in their microscopicity not seen but heard, not heard but revealed. A paranormal luminosity, which / one is it his time? / Is it the one that / reveals itself now to me? (p.72)

Gradually the early fascination, both the influence and the influences of NYC, wear off whereas the real, ontological, preoccupation persists, gnaws, governs and vitalises. The act(s) of observation though never abandoned become more acts of contemplation – the early walking, drifting, sight-seeing which encountered pictures becomes a distilled contemplation of a metaphysical problematic. There is a growing fascination with the Eastern – not an uncommon strain in American poetry given the Beats, in particular Whalen and Snyder and the work of Joanne Kyger. Buddhism is never too far away in the mix of certain American practices – The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics – neither in Pettet’s poetry is the figure of outside, the marginalia, the Chinese sage, the Japanese Zen puzzle, the Hindu yogi, the fool, the hermit, the crazy old man, the spectre, all find a presence in his work. Many manifestations of which, in the early poetry, could well been found in person in Tompkins Square Park close to East 12th Street.

These interests are not those of a settled conviction, given that we can read so many alternatives in this written search to define hearth but we can read them as being alternative to the dominant mode of the American democratic corporate way of life. Although many of these Eastern life-style themes may have been practically observed by Pettet - yogic practices, diet, meditation - it always appears advisable, from the poetry, to not only see with them but to see through them, to see their funny side. There is an underlying humour, indeed irony, to much of Pettet’s writing – much of it concerned with the moment of poetic writing. The realisation about a realisation is never too far away.

is the image of a life chosen.
He is sitting high up in the mountains meditating
With his dog, Spot.            (p.94)
For those not enlightened, enlightenment (satori) may be quizzical, puzzling and problematic. Gaining enlightenment is not easy,
                                He will not sensibly
answer your question but
neither will he ignore it.
The penultimate section of Hearth is More Winnowed Fragments and here Pettet has moved further and further from the solid geography of the city, the spaces of cities, their energies and flows, in order to further probe the essential momentary. Winnowing, an original outside pursuit, is a process of separation which seems pertinent to looking, observing and witnessing; getting rid of the unnecessary. The city is replaced by other kinds of environments and landscapes. The ensuing poetry becoming more and more a quest for the essence of ‘what is’ even if the ‘what is’ remains essentially indefinable, occult comfort (p.105).

Mind comfort, perhaps being at one with oneself (a difficult concept), is sort through the love of another, through observations with regard to the delights of nature and through the body’s own physical well-being. It all seems interactive or holistic! The possibility of passing from one moment (life) to another (death) is always present in some form (the final winnow?). A later poem sums it up,
What matters
what “matter” is,
what this scarred flesh
and tissue!
what this body
All immaterial            (p.164)
More Winnowed Fragments touches on the passing away of the self and others selves. Pettet always sensitively including others into his own living. Death (and life / birth) is everywhere, The moment so fleeting (p.109), Tombstone (p.113), funeral Wednesday afternoon at three / internment at Woodlawn Cemetery (p.118), the robin and the butterfly / and the leaf and the flame / and the extinction (p.121). And Pastoral with,
It all passes
Ah, but the lasses
These bodies
shall decompose           (p.122)
is juxtaposed on the adjoining page with a poignant poem about his mother,
Is my mother
in the Darby and Joan club
with her final beau
(and some peace at last)?
Loving and lovers seem to be a part of a life’s journey not unlike the remanifestation of the self or soul in Eastern mysticism – she passes from one female body / into another female body into another female body (p.119.)

The final section of Hearth more and more comes into contact with the dilemmas of living – of how to live. Throughout the book, in his pursuit for a hearth, Pettet acknowledges the East as having influence over his thinking and bodily requirements – meditation, alternative remedies and food regimes into which he has explored. This sometimes results in an ironic and playful scepticism. The poem on p.168, which pays a hidden tribute to O’Hara, plays around with ideas of bodily control, how to relax, which is then placed along its opposite, sexual passion, and finally the health giving benefits of food (or colours!),
Orange benefits the lungs,
green, the gastric juices

(so they say)
The body, its conditions and how to look after it, how to treat its failings – and the mind, ‘what to think’ and how to live, given one has left one home for another, have moved on from looking out for oneself in a novel, fascinating and sometimes hostile environment. The total word picture, word photograph / painting poem is no longer necessary – new poetic thought techniques take their place. The attentions are not always the same although our cares and concerns may be. In this way subject matters change and the accompanying composition of perceptions alter. In the closing poems of Feast or Famine we encounter a more ‘naturalistic’ world. Indeed the poems become populated by a variety of animals. These animals are not ‘ornamental’. They have something to say. Many of them seem to possess health giving benefits or divinatory powers, to point to something spiritual. Again these poems directly relate to Pettet’s on-going question as to the nature of Being and its relation to Earth’s Being. Earth is the second word of Hearth. Pettet’s ruminations and revelations of the moment are always close at hand. As Robert Creeley notes, “...a poet, at least one like Simon Pettet, is always on the job, always available, always moving to the next moment.”[1] This seeking thought - that which needs to understand and come to terms with what hearth is – animates the poems, fills them with life.

Cleansing the body (a kind of famine) is also a way of clearing out the past, as in I: Your Servant (p.143), I flush the toxins away, deliberately starving oneself from the past. Old love is discharged.

The opposite of this is that new love is feasted upon. Feasting upon is perhaps an extended metaphor in Garra Rufa where the Garra Rufa, also known as the Dr Fish, eats perhaps the dead skin from old wound(s) (p.175). Or indeed the poet can feast his eyes upon the Salmon...the wonderful skin / (vitamin enriched) glistening in the sunshine. The salmon here obviously not a fish at all. Along with the fish we have the augury of bird flocks and their calligraphic flight patterns (p.147) which can be discovered again in The Eleusian in Training (p.148).

Dragonflies, birds' eggs, pigeon-shadows, mountain goat, snakes, bees, lamb, pigeon and significantly a hyla appear. A Hyla (after Henry David Thoreau) seems at once thoroughly out of place and out of time, concerning itself with archaisms of language, an outmoded pastoral-like setting and a barrage of impasto-like phrases. Indeed one wonders where the poet was when he witnessed the material for this poem. Maybe it is simply a poem plundered and re-shaped from a Thoreau source? But on second looking we know it connects instinctively with Pettet’s preoccupations – Thoreau too may well have been addicted to the moment of observation. There is very little of the urban in these closing poems. The city of New York, although Pettet’s home, doesn’t fully provide or sustain the notion of hearth. The meaning of what it is to be is obviously more slippery than having roots or to be grounded in that autochthonic Heideggarian nationalistic sense.[2]

The final poem lets the reader cogitate the relationship between home and hearth – it is a settled home which is sought. This will be a place of security and safety but this is tied into Being’s constant seeking.


a settled home

for your bees

a place, a hearth,

something not violent

yet resembling a roaring fire,

—safe—           (p.178)
Bees of course are never settled and swarm every so often to create new colonies. In this poem the hearth is associated with its original and primal fire. The first care for the ancients was to keep both the literal and metaphorical fire going – life itself and the memory of the lives that went before. The hearth was the centrality of life.
The fire was something divine; they adored it, and offered it a real worship. They made offerings to it of whatever they believed to be agreeable to a god – flowers, fruit, incense, wine and victims. They believed it to have power, and asked for its protection. They
addressed fervent prayers to it, to obtain those eternal objects of human desire – health,
wealth and happiness. [3]


[1] Robert Creeley, Simon Pettet’s Calling, Jacket 25,
[2] Heidegger had some very distinctive and disturbing ideas about the hearth, given his early fascination with Nazism. “For history is nothing other than such return to hearth.” This is quoted by Charles Bambach who adds, ‘In this reading of the hearth as the source of historical homecoming, Heidegger will find the axis of his own ontological-political reading of German history. The Hearth, Heidegger will claim, is but another word for “being”. And yet the hearth can also be read as the site or stead of being-homely, of coming to determine the center of the home, as the place for human dwelling.’ Charles Bambach, Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism and the Greeks. Ithaca, N.Y.:Cornell Uni Press, 2003
[3] Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges, p.18 The Ancient City, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980

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