Format: 192 pp., hardback; Size: 6×9″ Price: $27.99; Publisher: Ecco; Number of Poems with “Notes” or “Notebook” in Their Titles: 7; Number of Poems with “Poet,” “Poem” or “Poetics” in Their Titles: 5; Presiding Intellect: Yosa Buson; Three Writers Hass Talks To or With in the Book: Eugenio Montale, Czesław Miłosz, Anton Chekhov; Representative Passage: “I had been thinking that day of my cousin Lisa’s death / From an overdose of drugs. It’s brutal, the way some lives / Seem to work and some don’t.”
Central Question: What if we didn’t give up?
All writing is experimental—is an experiment. What if I use this word. What if I try it from this angle. What if this follows this.
Some poems succeed by seeming both artificial and natural. Rhyme, for instance, can do that in a poem. Like a talented dancer: all body, listening so closely to itself, doing something a body would, in most circumstances, never think to do.
Some poems succeed by seeming both provisional and whole.
Something like that in Robert Hass’s later poems, including the ones in his new book. Poems that feel like a net in water, still a little bit adrift, so that what they contain seems still to belong to the ocean as a whole. And yet not an accident, either—a coherence, a consequence, in the way it holds what it holds. So that it lends something, by implication, to the ocean in which it pulls.
This stanza, for instance—or maybe it’s a poem? It’s the last section of “Nature Notes in the Morning”:
Bright sun. No wind,
So that stirring in the cottonwood
Must be a warbler.
The way reason (“so”) becomes imagination in those last two lines. And the way those four lines, how they’re written (the final line at last stretching out on the back of causality, finally offering a predicate to one of the nouns), how they stand still, absorbing the motion of all the other small, apparently unrelated observational sections that precede them, persuade me that all of this exists in a way that doesn’t depend on being written down.
It feels like it would take a long time to write something like that, whether or not one did much writing in that time. And so another thing those lines imply is time. World enough, as the long-ago courtier claimed not to have, and time.
And time is our medium—our human medium. Which means that a poem, in its rhythms, in its gathering of time and experience, can make our losses seem to belong.
A rightness. Rightness, which can seem trivial unless you know how painful feeling wrong can be—misplaced, out of place, stuttering through time.
“All you have to do is say some words.” That’s the first line of a poem called “The Archaeology of Plenty.” Parts and versions of the sentence repeat throughout the poem, including, near the end, “All you have to do is say the words.” That small transit from “some” to “the,” which seems like one goal, or achievement, of the much larger transit the poem attempts.
That sentence feels neither sincere not ironic. It’s more like the beginning of a spell, something the poem (the poet) wants to make true, at least for a time. As in several of these poems, Hass is fairly explicit about what he’s writing against. At one point in the poem’s chiming first stanza he refers to “The metaphysical nausea that being in your life / […] seems to have produced in you.” “The usual carnage,” he writes later on.
In a different part of the poem, imagining a friend’s happiness: “It calms me down a little to think of it.”
“Experiment,” when applied to poetry, tends to mean breaking, but Hass’s poems feel like experiments in continuity. What if this follows this. What if the truth enchants us. World enough. Plenty.
Though you should probably be careful when you present the world as bounteous, lest you —if you’re a straight man — end up writing something like “In the dream he was a woman, naked, indolent from pleasure, a gleam of sperm on her vaginal lips.” Or “What is it about irises that make you want to describe a sheaf of them as ‘lithe,’ as if they were longlegged young women bathing together // After a round of golf or tennis?”
“Nature Notes in the Morning.” “Nature Notes 2.” “The Creech Notebook.” “Seoul Notebook.” “Notes on the Notion of a Boundless Poetics.” So many of Hass’s later poems depend, in part, on feeling like they were captured on the wing, almost by chance. Though they depend at least as much on feeling shapely, so that the world seems to gather there and a patient, confident rhythm seems to emerge.
Years ago I ran into a friend and we talked about Hass’s beautiful book of essays, Twentieth Centuries Pleasures. My friend liked the book, but was skeptical. What kind of life would it take to make something like this possible, he asked? How much fortune—free time, time at peace, to think and read and contemplate and wait—to enable that kind of thought? And I bristled, in part because I still imagined a life like that for myself.
Then again, I still bristle.
The last essay in that book is my favorite, “Images.” It includes passages like this:
…I find that there is something steadying and nourishing about the art of Buson, about his apparent interest in everything that passed before his eyes and the feeling in his work of an artist’s delight in making. This does not mean that he made no discriminations, that he thought this was as good as that; it means that he acted as if he believed that any part of the world, completely seen, was the world.
That book came out in 1984. It’s easy enough to imagine he spent many of the years since working, patiently, toward that ideal.
And if patience is a luxury, it’s at least one that a writer can hand on for the space of a poem or a book.
“A Talk at Sewanee” begins with Hass collecting ideas he’d written down from a long-ago lecture by the novelist Ellen Douglas, as well as his recollection of the situation in which she spoke. Eventually, Hass introduces, with breathtaking equanimity, another narrative:
I had been thinking that day of my cousin Lisa’s death
From an overdose of drugs. It’s brutal, the way some lives
Seem to work and some don’t.
That second sentence does something Hass does often and well: with just a few brushstrokes, he names the world so accurately that the events seem to fall into place.
I want to quote the ending of the poem at length. You have to listen to a sizeable chunk of these poems to really hear the way they work. He’s still talking about his cousin at this point; “the old writer” he refers to later on is Douglas, who grew up in Mississippi:
I called my aunt, who would have been the old writer’s age.
She said, “You know, I have no tears. Isn’t that awful. I
Seem to be out of tears.” Ellen Douglas is a pen name.
Born in the 1920s into a world in which respectability
Could have pressed her into collusion with a degrading
System of apartheid. I don’t know what saves people.
I know we tend to love our children. I know addiction
Wrecks lives. It feels like a mystery, whatever idea
Of the good had to set that handsome old woman
In front of the audience of young writers, shaking
Her head, saying, “You have to write your way
To knowing what you have to say, and then,
With no guarantees, you have to keep trying
To write your way in the general direction
Of what it would feel like to actually say it.”
Summer Snow is 174 pages. I still haven’t read any book of poems anywhere near that long that I haven’t wished were shorter—much shorter, in almost every case.
Though at least, in this case, the book seems to keep moving. Hass is a graceful writer, and one with a substantial gift for narrative, and so it’s easy to move through the poems that don’t add up to much. Poems like “The Creech Notebook,” a fifteen-page travelogue of a trip to protest at a drone facility in the Nevada desert. If the protests ultimately changed nothing, that hardly means it wasn’t worth protesting. But the poem itself seems hardly to protest against anything, including its own going on—going out, and going home, and then writing it down.
In such poems time slackens, is smudged. Smudged and slackened, time becomes visible, including the time of my reading it.
Compare that to “After Xue Di,” a poem that sifts, in prose, through the news of a car bombing in Syria—“thirty-seven people, all civilians, dead, fifty or so injured”—and then, as is the case in so many of these poems, lets so much else drift in.
“It’s the rush to own the killings,” he writes early in the poem, “that made something in me just want to quit morally.” Here’s how the poem ends:
And the dead need to be buried, and remembered. It’s not as if nothing can be done. The imagination doesn’t have to give up.
There are those thirty-seven people, shopping, I suppose, drinking tea in a café. The agendas of their particular lives making electric signals inside the fleshy brains that were about to be reduced to pulp.
The oldest archaeological evidence of the appearance on earth of our species is ritual behavior at gravesites. There are ways of not quitting morally. From the beginning we knew to tend the dead.
A child’s skeleton preserved in the peats of the Ukrainian prairie. The curved horns of sheep arranged around the small body.
Writing about the books I love, I want to go on quoting. So, one more.
This comes from “Death in Childhood,” one in a series of poems about people dying at different ages. Almost all of them are superb, and they have the effect of making death seem—not right, but a part, potentially, of something that can be righted, shapely, worthy of our patience and regard.
In a poem with that title, a child’s death can’t come as a surprise, but Hass finds a way of restoring some of its intrusive swerving into a world in which we can still imagine children aren’t supposed to die. Most of the poem is a memory of spending time with the young boy on a beach, where, “solemn and delicate,” the boy was showing him a shell. “…the successive ridges on the curvature,” the boy had explained, “were the stages of growth.” About halfway through the poem, Hass pulls back from his summary of the boy’s words to the boy, and here’s the rest of the poem in full:
He would brush back a shock of blond hair
from his eyes to look up and see if I followed him.
The hole in his heart was not what killed him;
it was the ways his lungs had to labor
because of the defect. The surf was breaking
through irises of light, quick small rainbows
down the beach as far as one could see.
He had to have been a very avid listener.
It seemed to me to mean that he’d been loved,
and wanted to be like his father, which was why
it was so delicious to him to be talking
to almost any adult about all there is to know.
Brutal. For all their warmth and welcome, many of these poems are. But what stays with me so vividly is the two lines that begin “He had to have been….” Hass has a habit of slipping insight into some out-of-the-way part of a poem, the business end of a metaphor, or something he’d noticed about a boy he didn’t know very well before the boy died young. The implication, for me, is that there’s no part of experience that isn’t worthy of attention, or patience, or imagination. That there are available altitudes into which experience can lift—or be lifted. Which consoles me. “It calms me down a little to think of it.”
All writing is an experiment.
“There are ways of not quitting.”
“All you have to do is say the words.”