Robert Hass's Guilt or The Weight of Wallace Stevens.
Many are making love. Up above, the angels in the unshaken ether and crystal of human longing are braiding one another's hair, which is strawberry blond and the texture of cold rivers. --Robert Hass, "Privilege of Being" (1) Perhaps, After death, the non-physical people, in paradise, Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe The green corn gleaming and experience The minor of what we feel. --Wallace Stevens, "Esthetique du Mal" (2)
Robert Hass's angels recall Rilke's angels. They are pure; they need nothing. In "Privilege of Being," from Hass's third collection, Human Wishes (1989), angels look down on a couple "making love," and they "are desolate. They hate it." (3) With their luminous hair and intimacy, the angels watch the mess of sex that lies below: a yearning for total unity performed by the force of bodies. Hass's angels are appalled by the drama beneath them. Like the angels of the Duino Elegies (1923), they live in an ideal world for which humans long, of "cold rivers" that might quench immeasurable thirst. Personal rather than Biblical, the angels project Rilke's desire to transcend the mortal body, to experience total ecstasy. As Rilke imagines them, the angels are complete in themselves, like "mirrors, which scoop up the beauty that has streamed from their face / and gather it back, into themselves, entire." (4) When the speaker of the first elegy cries out who will hear me? the implicit response to his call is no one, as Hass himself noted in his 1982 essay on Rilke. (5) Hass's angels, on the other hand, are fascinated by the couple's violent self-absorption. Hass deftly reverses Rilke's comparison between angels and humans by figuring the couple's fixation on each other, not on angels: his couple is mirrored in the sexual act, "they look at each other; / two beings with evolved eyes, rapacious." (6) Rarely a lone Rilkean wanderer, Hass examines longing's fold back into the world, its origin in other people.
If Hass's humans seek Rilke's transcendence, then they are also shrewdly aware of its limitations, sex that lasts only "for an hour or so." (7) As in much of Hass's work--including his substantial, long-awaited new volume, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005--what the poem seeks is the right relation to an animal drive, a measurement that can be called "human," an understanding of desire that might be found, for instance, in a book. "What are the habits of paradise?" Hass asks in a new poem that wonders about the method and belief of other poets--here, Michael Palmer and Czeslaw Milosz. The end of the poem borrows Milosz's image of the dead disguised as returning birds, eating strewn millet. (8) "Privilege of Being" ends with the couple reading magazines on the beach "about intimacy between the sexes / to themselves, and to each other, / and to the immense, illiterate, consoling angels." (9) The couple's limitations, however ironic, are still preferable to the angels' illiteracy. In an angelic universe, there is no reason for reading, for there is nothing further to learn. Why then, Hass implies, do we want to live there? Whereas "The Duino Elegies are an argument against our lived, ordinary lives," according to Hass, the poet finds himself rooted more solidly in the partial fulfillments in life, not beyond it. (10) Hass's birds return to the earth.
His suspicion about angels comes closer to the position taken by Wallace Stevens, a poet whose influence can be traced in each of the five volumes Hass has published over the past thirty-five years. Emphasizing Hass's interest in "lived, ordinary lives," however, may seem like a surprising way to suggest a shared poetics with Stevens, whose influence on Hass looks less profound than Whitman's, Pound's, or Wordsworth's. Indeed, contrast might seem a first note between the poets. Hass began his poetic career by placing domesticity against a backdrop of social unrest and foreign war, whereas Stevens is rarely read as a political poet. (11) Hass has cultivated a west coast literary lineage--Duncan and Jeffers, in particular--whereas Stevens' roots, despite his love for Florida's "venereal soil," are firmly in New England. Moreover, Hass's language is speech-based, against Stevens' exotic flare and dazzle. But easy distinctions soon come undone. The relationship between Hass and Stevens deserves attention, especially as Stevens has emerged as one of the most important modernist influences on both mainstream and experimental contemporary American poetry. (12) Furthermore, reading Stevens through Hass makes Stevens look less abstract, a poet who fiercely engages with the material world, "Black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal, the moving grass," as he writes in "The Auroras of Autumn." (13) This take on Stevens suggests a subtle influence whose reverberations reveal something of T. S. Eliot in their dimensions--"the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past." (14) Hass's handling of Stevens compels a particular reading of Stevens' central preoccupation with here and beyond. While there is no doubt that Stevens could imagine a heavenly existence beyond this one, Stevens' late poems, in particular, are conflicted about the possibility of world stripped of human desire, where frailty and pain do not exist. An unknown place "In its permanent cold," as Stevens writes in "The Rock," ultimately lacks the pull of experiences marked by constant change, by physicality, by the temporality of ordinary life. (15)
Hass's poems have always chafed against formlessness, against desires that are too immense to be called "human." (16) This tension between magnitude beyond and scale that lies here, between the immensity of angels and human measure, between "desire / and dailiness" (to cite one of Hass's lines) should be traced back to a similar preoccupation in Stevens' work. (17) In "Esthetique du Mal"--a poem that lies behind Hass's "Privilege of Being"--Stevens conceives of "non-physical people, in paradise" who perhaps "experience / The minor of what we feel." Like Hass's angels, Stevens' "nonphysical people" look down on a "gleaming" world; its corn will ripen and be ready to harvest, but the angels will not change. And, as we know with Stevens, beauty hinges on the conviction "It Must Change." The "minor" of angels is thus both a darker key and an experience of lesser intensity. These are not creatures who recognize a "higher level of reality in the invisible," as Rilke wrote of his angels, but rather entities who, because they are invisible, miss out on fully felt pleasure. (18) Even if Stevens' angels are able to feel with intensity, a possibility Stevens raises in "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction," it is only because a human being can imagine angelic experience. In the climactic canto beginning "What am I to believe?" Stevens concludes that if "the angel in his cloud" were to leap down, his pleasure in the earth would essentially belong to the poet who imagines him. Stevens' exalted conclusion collapses angelic superiority: "Whistle aloud, too weedy wren. I can / Do all that angels can." (19) "The Necessary Angel" in the title of Stevens' essay collection is ultimately, then, a kind of imaginative boundary, a figure for what humans can do.
Stevens of course can be cast in very different roles: as a poet of "ideas," a playful dandy, a late romantic, a meditative nostalgic, or as a poet of the commonplace. It is easy to make a case that Hass has developed as a poet in opposition to one strain in Stevens' work--his detachment from what critics might call the "real" world, or the temptation of a "supreme fiction" more valuable than the material earth. In a 1992 essay, Hass suggests something along these lines, describing his relationship to Stevens as "polemical." (20) Hass explains how the political and social upheavals of the 1960s from which he emerged as a young poet complicated his early admiration for Stevens, whose work he loved for its musicality but distrusted for its "lordliness." (21) Yvor Winters' verdict on Stevens' "hedonism" also made its mark on Hass while at Stanford. But when Hass wrote the poems that became his first volume, Field Guide (1973), Stevens was behind many of them, including "Palo Alto: The Marshes," which begins, "She dreamed along the beaches of this coast." (22) Hass here transforms Stevens, taking "An Idea of Order at Key West" and launching a poem about the United States seizure of California after the Mexican-American War. Whereas Stevens' order lies "beyond," Hass pinpoints the particular names of things "along" the California coast: "explosive names of birds: / egret, killdeer, bittern, tern." (23) The poem draws its charge from the particularity of geography; names sound out the violence of a recent past, not an idea. And yet, the "Blessed rage" that ends Stevens' poem--"The maker's rage to order words of the sea"--is the same imperative behind Hass's poem, to order the world in words. Admittedly, Stevens' language--even if we grant the "harshness" that Helen Vendler ascribes to it--maintains a level of abstraction distinct from the transparently autobiographical approach of Hass. (24) The "startling becalmed clarity" of Stevens' work, from Hass's point of view, contrasts with the dramatic, personal intensity of another poet he admires, Stanley Kunitz, who chose Hass's first book for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1973. (25( Hass is certainly drawn to both modes. While there are moments in Hass's poems when we hear the formal measure of Stevens' lines, the link between these poets does not wholly lie in image or linguistic echo. Rather, Stevens is diffused everywhere into Hass's work; indeed, Hass has "soaked him up like a blotter." (26)
"O most ordinary, taken from dailiness and elevated to a place like this earth and not like this earth!" --Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Robert Hass (27)
One of the most striking features of Time and Materials--a volume that emerges with tremendous, expansive grace from nearly ten years of work--is Hass's engagement with the network of war. from the dissolution of Rome to the battle of the Somme to the current war in Iraq. Emblematic of an underlying tendency in Hass's work, many poems from Time and Materials fixate on etymology and genealogy, tracking contemporary violence back into history, against amnesia. "Kinship map[s]" take account of time's layers, an accumulation that Hass's new volume compares, ultimately, to layers acquired by age, to relationships over many years. "After the Winds" begins in a rush of comical linkages:
My first wife's older sister's third husband's daughter-- That's about as long as a line of verse should get-- Karmic debris? A field anthropologist's kinship map? Just sailed by me on the Berkeley street. A student Of complex mathematical systems ... (28)
Genealogies, of course, also unravel what they order, so that the progression of this poem--even as it constructs a narrative--is never quite forward. The poem, like the strongest, most powerful poems in Time and Materials, accumulates and keeps accumulating, spreading out sometimes in lines of six or seven metric feet, covering two to three pages, like a dense block, a "complex mathematical system." Looking at these poems, a reader may feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of language on the page. But the poems exert a narrative pull with their interlocking stories, recounted with conversational authority, though rarely dependent on prose. Unlike Hass's previous two volumes, Time and Materials maintains almost entirely the poetic line, broadened now to include the speculations once confined to prose. Hass seems to be asking what can I do with the line? what can it take? But the showmanship beginning of "After the Winds" can darken, can pose the serious question of whether the poetic line--once you are in deep--can handle language more familiar, for instance, to a summary, a report. "I frankly admit," Hass writes in another poem that blurs literary and real life lineages:
the syntax Of that sentence, like the intestines slithering from the hands Of the startled boys clutching their belly wounds At the Somme, has escaped my grip. I step over it Gingerly. Where were we? (29)
The words he steps over are like a dead body, both impeding and dramatizing what the poem is able to do: forge resemblance out of bizarre unlikeness. The poem, "I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name is Dmitri," self-consciously borrows its title from a poem by John Ashbery to ask whether a poem is "closed" or open to a world of other people, other poets, other pressures. Hass attempts inclusiveness, a quality he admired in Milosz's work, a consideration of the horror of the world that poetry cannot step over, even if within the poem (in this case, Ashbery's) there is little mention of particular violence. In another narrative poem, Hass presents us with a woman on a treadmill, both moving and staying in place: "trying not to look, and then trying to look / at images on tv of Iraqi women howling / in the ruins of a city." (30) The active attention to violence against an initial aversion to it--or pronounced evasion of it--characterizes the structure of this poem and many others that confront and retreat and then head back into the "ruins" again.
One of the most moving of the long narrative poems, "For Czeslaw Milosz in Krakow," pays tribute to a poet whose formal and tonal impact is central to this volume. Through Milosz, Hass sees an America that is obscurely haunted by some of the same elements that haunt Milosz's work, especially the unwillingness to think that we have a history, at a time when we are both at war and not at war. For many years up until Milosz's death in 2004, Hass worked with Milosz on translating his poetry from Polish into English, meeting every week in the study which figures into this poem's central image. The poem imagines the absent Polish poet's response to the birth of "a pair of fawns / A couple of weeks ago just outside your study." (31) Hass contemplates his own desire to praise, contemplates the politics of narrative description. The epigraph to Hass's second volume, in which a captain decides, in the face of "a beast so large, terrifying" to "praise it," exemplifies Hass's proclivity: not unlike Rilke's Orpheus, dennoch preisen, nevertheless praise. (32) Alternatively, Hass has written that "[t]o praise things, for Milosz, is to praise the history of suffering; it is to collude with torture and mutilation and decay." (33) In the poem, Hass remembers Milosz saying that he does not "agree with the novel," a claim from which Hass diverges with the descriptive narrative drive of the poem itself, an important function of Hass's longer poetic line. (34) Praise is what Hass reveres, and ultimately what Milosz does despite himself:
And the world's poor salvation in the word. Well, Dear friend, you resisted. You were not mute. Mark tells me he has seen the fawns gazing With their mother in the dusk. Gorging on your roses-- So it seem they made it through the night And neither dog nor car has got to them just yet. (35)
Despite the primacy of violence (the fawns will get killed), despite the hope of salvation beyond the world, Milosz commits himself to words. While words are "poor salvation," they are the only salvation for Hass. Nevertheless, praise.
In much of Hass's previous work, his desire to stave off the temptations of all-consuming desire plays out in language that is sharply particularized, as if the word can serve as a limit to his world: flower might be "larkspur" or "horse-parsnip;" trees are "Toyon, old oak, and coffeeberry;" individuals are "Luke," "Mr. Acker," "Brenda." We know we are reading about the experiences of a very specific man who is almost always the 'T' in his poems: Bob, living in Berkeley, who also translates Japanese haiku; who hikes in the foothills and reads Chekov; who married young and raised a family;, who experienced a painful divorce; who fell in love with another California poet. (36) We know his location is often at home; we know his politics emerged from the era of Vietnam; and we know, among other things, his appreciation for fragrant tea, apricots, small coastal birds, fog in the foothills. Hass prints his attentions into "Images" in his work, a practice he explained in a mid-career manifesto of that name.
The sensitive, autobiographical nature of Hass's writing, however, can exasperate some readers; one critic has dubbed Hass a poet for bourgeois-bohemians, citing David Brooks' recent term. (37) Hass has no interest in making up a world or designing a language different from the life and language in which he finds himself. His images--sharp as haiku--register the urge to pin down and make sense of this life, rather than claim total explanation, or worse, incomprehensibility when experiences seem too enormous in scope. But Hass also describes how images sometimes decontextualize what they present; he argues that Imagism--a la Pound and Fennellosa--allows for a "dramatic ambivalence" of detachment, of "throwing the weight of meaning back on the innocence and discovery of the observer," as if seeing something for the first time. (38) These micro-epiphanies eschew temporal context, like the flash of a photograph stilling a moment in place, forever. In his new volume, Hass unites images with a mature suspicion (probably acquired from Milosz) of what they may overlook.
Time and Materials aims to place the reader in time, announced by the date on the title's cover: 1997-2005. These eight years most noticeably mark a time before and after 9/11--and they assert the weight of those years; to use one of Hass's own metaphors, the poems accumulate matter. In the volume's title poem, Gerhard Richter's "Abstrakt Bilden" is a model of this accumulation; the layers of paint--"action painting"--allow the painter to "behave like time": "To score, to scar, to smear, to streak, / To. smudge, to blur, to gouge, to scrape." (39) In a companion poem, "Art and Life," the lucid "stream of milk" in a Vermeer painting is also "Shocking," inversely accreting power as the layers of "time" have been stripped back carefully to reveal an original white. These two poems announce the volume's central concern with painting; the poem from which I draw my epigraph tracks Milosz's response to three museum paintings. The exclamatory "O" is an expression of wonder moving through the world even at three removes (painting, poem, translation), though the poet no doubt admires, in particular, paint's visual immediacy. In fact, the clarity of the white stream in "Art and Life" blurs the milkmaid's world with the poet's, an erotic charge that takes him back 300 years, and then forward again, as the "hoofbeats of shod horses on the cobbles" become the paintbrush's fibers:
... the stickiness of paint Adhering to the woven flax of the canvas, here Is the faithfulness of paint on paint on paint on paint. And something comes alive this way we cannot have, Can have because we cannot have it. Something stays. (40)
The application of paint in Vermeer and Richter--representation and abstraction--encodes the hand that paints, the vigorous gesture, still alive in the painting and in the poet. "Art and Life" does not glorify a painting's revelations--art as epiphany--but rather what art gives context to, a "life" into which the painting enters, continuity that "stays." Hass here envies the physical dimensions of painting. Poetry's only relationship to the body resides in its orality, the music of the mouth. In this strain, Hass's own work has always been wrought with self-critique.
[Wallace Stevens] felt to me as if he needed to be resisted, as if he were a luxury, like ice cream, that I couldn't indulge. --Robert Hass (41)
If Stevens felt like a luxury to the young Robert Hass, then Stevens is one of the many luxuries that make their way into Hass's entire body of work. Pleasure never comes without examination; it often comes with intense feelings of guilt, or, especially in the poems from Human Wishes (1989) and Sun Under Wood (1996), feelings of shame. In Hass's estimation, the luxuriousness of Stevens' work derives in part from its musicality, the dimension of language that sets it apart from other mediums, like painting. In this sense it is striking to see how "song" itself is a dominant subject for scrutiny, as if the poet shouldn't be allowed to sing in the midst of pain, shouldn't be allowed to sing beyond. In "Berkeley Eclogue," a poem of self-recrimination, the poet asks himself "You want to sing?" and responds with disdain: "Tra-la. Empty and he wants to sing." (42) In "Interrupted Meditation," an old Hungarian exile critiques the "self-expression" of poets. Hass, half in agreement with the man, can only continue to sing:
I'm a little ashamed that I want to end this poem singing, but I want to end this poem singing-- the wooly closed-down buds of the sunflower to which, in English, someone gave the name, sometime, of pearly everlasting. (43)
These are the last lines of Sun Under Wood, and this "someone" is Hass himself. "Garden of Delight" from Praise (1979) ends: "I used to name the flowers--/ beard tongue, stone crop, / pearly everlasting." (44) The act of looking to a previous volume is a self-protective move, like the withdrawal of "closed-down buds." The self-reference doubles the past back, since the earlier poem also looks to a time when he "used to." Hass recalls when the specific names of natural species Could make what he valued "stay put," as he has described his early aims. (45) "Interrupted Meditation" suggests that he does not want to give up this technique, as he explains in another poem, "because we live our lives in language and in time, / craving some pure idiomorphic dialect of the thing itself." (46) But why should singing make him feel "ashamed"? The word links him to the Hungarian exile with whom he has been disagreeing, for whom, Hass tells us, "there had been a time of shame." (47) To move back or beyond--to refer to a song of the past or to sing of a hereafter (a "pearly everlasting")--is to imagine a place other than the place from which one writes, be it Budapest during the war or the rooms in which one's marriage fails. To flee in song (the impulse is Rilkean) and to feel shame: the ambivalence of Hass's ending is characteristic.
Pinning down the precise words of things is not always enough to satisfy what Hass is after, but it becomes the source of exploring language's power and its limitations, or what a word can do. Hass frequently expresses something like "I am fulfilled," particularly in reference to language, but the frequency of this emotion and the intricacy of how Hass comes to this point instruct a practiced reader of Hass's work to distrust him. Hass's now famous "blackberry, blackberry, blackberry" is such a moment, charged by the poet's uncertainty, his restorative repetition. Readers who understand "Meditation at Lagunitas" as a poem arriving at total, genuine fulfillment miss the tenuousness that makes Hass's work compelling. Hass's poems do not impose their authority, but test it. Recoiling from pretensions of poetic "song," his authority derives from intrepid self-criticism, worked out in language more speech-like than bardic. Robert von Hallberg, on this note, has claimed that the authority of Hass's work (and of others like Gluck, Pinsky and Graham) derives not from an Orphic tradition, but from a civil order, a language of "recognizable speech." (48) It is striking to see that one of the very few prose poems in Time and Materials--on saturation bombing in Vietnam--is entitled "Poem," as if poetry should be capacious enough to bear the paradoxically prosaic statistics of twentieth-century war. Flexible, fluent, Hass's language lies within the ambit of public institutions and ordinary discourse. "Song" is seldom language made strange.
In the first poem from Sun Under Wood, "Happiness," the idea of song is linked with Stevens, as Hass describes himself sitting down to begin a new poem. The fresh page of his n.otebook is "blank except for a faint blue idea of order." (49) Like an oblique answer to the question "why are you happy?" the meta-poem repeats the first word "Because": because the "last windfall apples," because "the whistling swans." (50) This is not Stevens' "blank," but a vivid winter world. As a "faint" echo, Stevens perhaps cajoles an "order" to the climate, "A tune beyond us, yet ourselves," as the first section of "The Man With the Blue Guitar" instructs. (51) What Hass writes down on his blank page--marked by italics in the poem--is a description of himself and his lover in bed that very morning, "our eyes squinched up like bats." (52) The "faint blue idea of order"--if ever it lied beyond--becomes the animal immediacy of here.
But it is important to note that beyond is always present in Hass, and it is often associated with Stevens, even as Stevens grapples with a similar problem of how to be satisfied with here. Stevens' insistence on pleasure ("It Must Give Pleasure") is an insistence on a quality about which he is both sure and unsure, in the sense of pleasure as inherently tied to the body. Likewise, in perhaps the most famous lines from "Esthetique du Mal" (which immediately precede the passage on nonphysical people in paradise), Stevens writes: "The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world, to feel that one's desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair." (53) Stevens here attempts to convince himself of a credo that he has only lately realized, as the poem conceives of language as reinvigorated--if often violently so--by the experience of human suffering. "Esthetique du Mal" was specifically written at the request of John Crowe Ransom, in response to a soldier who lamented that the poetry in the Kenyon Review was "cut off from pain." (54) The poem meditates on the beauty of the physical world alongside the violence of war, suggesting that both derive from the same flawed, human source. Stevens advocates imperfection, human-scale; the last lines promise profuse beauty in "living as and where we live." (55)
An early, key poem in Hass's oeuvre that plays on this tension between scale and immensity is "Songs to Survive the Summer," the long poem that ends Praise, in which the paternal figure of Wallace Stevens appears. Hass meditates on the death of a young neighbor, who "died, at Sunday breakfast / of a swelling in the throat." (56) He wants to give "shape" to his grief, and recounts how this is done: bequeathing names to nature, telling stories to his daughter, making soup, weaving something substantial. Alongside these consolations, Hass considers his own poem, as if tempering poetry's more lofty aims. Stevens' meditative solitude at first seems to identify him as a man cut off from the materialism in which Hass finds solace.
... I thought this morning of Wallace Stevens walking equably to work and of a morning two Julys ago on Chestnut Ridge, wandering down the hill when one rusty elm leaf, earth skin peeling, wafted by me on the wind. My body groaned toward fall and preternaturally a heron lifted from the pond. I even thought I heard the ruffle of the wings three hundred yards below me rising from the reeds. Death is the mother of beauty and that clean-shaven man smelling of lotion, lint-free, walking toward his work, a pure exclusive music in his mind. (57)
If Hass understands Stevens' preoccupations to be "pure" and "exclusive," then he also knows Stevens is nonetheless a poet of the body, who showers and shaves and walks toward work. With the "ruffle" of a heron's wings, Hass echoes Stevens' "wakened birds" that gratify the woman in "Sunday Morning." Hass's heron rises below him and upwards, like the final image in which "casual flocks of pigeons" both "sink" and rise, "Downward to darkness, on extended wings." In both poems, the materiality of nature (birds, fruit, water, the body) fights against the fear of formless and unchanging death. Ultimately--and to the poem's success--we are not allowed to trust the sentiment of Stevens' line, "Death is the mother of beauty." But neither are we able to trust it twice in "Sunday Morning," where it resonates as if disembodied, an indirect reply to the woman:
She says, "But in contentment I still feel The need of some imperishable bliss." Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams. (58)
It has always been unclear to me who speaks to (or about) the woman in Stevens' poem. The voice of the poem, in places, seems as uncertain as she is, so that the poem's charge is beautifully belied by its unstable authority. It is very telling that Stevens' final version of "Sunday Morning" does not end with "Supple and turbulent" men, the stanza Harriet Monroe preferred when she first published the poem in Poetry magazine. (59) Stevens' last stanza is much more "ambiguous," to use his own word; beneath the "unsponsored" freedom of "island solitude;" beneath the beauty of deer in our mountains, lies sinking terror.
Rarely in Hass's work does a reader find Stevens' carefully considered, discursive tercets, though "Songs to Survive the Summer," fittingly, consists of haiku-like clippings resembling Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," as if to delimit the terror with which the poet is at odds:
The squalor of mind is formlessness, informis , the Romans said of ugliness, it has no form, a man's misery, bleached skies (60)
Death is akin to colorless skies "bleached" without variation, not particularized. Stevens' voice is also here, describing how "squirming facts exceed the squamous mind" in "The Connoisseur of Chaos," and "form gulping after formlessness" in "The Auroras of Autumn." (61) The latter poem is driven by images of destruction--while a "form" might coalesce, the form immediately gulps towards its own dissolution, towards something outside of itself. "Auroras of Autumn" conceives of humanity as hungry for what might lie beyond the tangible world--suggested by brilliant streamers in the night sky--yet this world is the only one with which we can engage. Hass says something similar with blunt force in "Songs to Survive the Summer": "This is my life, / time islanded / in poems of dwindled time. / There is no other world." (62) Small shapes seem to be the poet's response to swallowing formlessness--the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. Hass's "songs" reject the sublime, uneasily.
"[O]ne of my minor occupations was raging against Rilke." --Robert Hass, "Regalia for a Black Hot Dancer" (63)
Beauty and terror return us to Rilke. "For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure," he writes in the first elegy. What animates Hass's work is a refusal to be washed away by Rilkean enormity, the formlessness of terror. Stevens' Crispin faces a similar problem:
What word split up in dickering syllables And storming under multitudinous tones Was name for this short-shanks in all that brunt? Crispin was washed away by magnitude. (64)
Crispin's grand sea voyage and return home becomes a search for form ("what word?) in places overwhelming in their "magnitude." (65) For Crispin, who is a highly autobiographical version of the young Wallace Stevens, an abundance of poetic material floods his ability to make discriminations in his own particular language. Hass draws upon Stevens' "The Comedian as the Letter C" in a new poem entitled "Twin Dolphins," in which a paradise of palms--full of birdsong--challenges the poet's own language, his discriminations of size and taste. The plentitude and beauty of a tropical resort, like Stevens' Florida or Cuba, is belied by a "rattling" menace, beautiful yet unsettling sounds beneath the calm, like the speech of dolphins, that Hass deftly invokes with his last two lines quoting Stevens: "--as if raspberry tanagers in palms, / High up in orange air, were barbarous." (66) Hass's explicit engagement with Stevens (or Crispin) underscores the confidence with which he has inherited Stevens' language, even as Hass uses Stevens' poem to raise the question of where one finds "song." In an essay on childhood that looks back at his first experience with poetry, Hass describes how another early Stevens poem, "Domination of Black," embodied for him the terror of magnitude: "I suppose it was the acknowledgment of terror, of terror and beauty, in the poem that seemed to so wake me up, or hypnotize me," Hass writes, "... It was the first physical sensation of the truthfulness of a thing that I had ever felt." (67) To mature as a poet, Hass suggests, he had to recognize the relationship between the "truth" of Stevens' poem (with its wind, flames, and crying peacocks) and his own more local environment, to parcel out terror into more manageable parts.
There is a risk that Hass has taken in delimiting terror, in sizing it down. Hass's poems often begin with and return to the safety and pleasure of small things: a bath, a dragonfly, a late dinner, "the little flare of dawn rose in the kernel / Of the almond." (68) If Hass sometimes allows for the "multitudinous" flood that Crispin experiences (a word of course that cannot be separated from Macbeth's bloodbath), then he quickly circles back to a more rational assessment, to safety. Assessing Hass's first two volumes, Alan Shapiro argued that Hass draws back from intellectuality as well, desiring "to live wholly in a world of sensory experience." (69) While I think this claim becomes less true in Hass's later work--partly because Hass's distrust of intellectuality comes from his entrenchment in it--there nonetheless remains a characteristic retreat to safety in the face of intense emotion. Another critic, otherwise sympathetic to Hass's work, has suggested that Hass "seems to cultivate sanity as if it were a hothouse plant, grown in books and domestic settings but preserved from any full encounter with rage or ecstasy." (70) "Interrupted Meditation" (the poem that Hass wants to end "singing"), for instance, pulls away from a scene in which a woman has told a man "I don't love you ... The terrible thing is / that I don't think I ever loved you." (71) The man quickly defends himself with the thought, "Everyone their own devastations. Each on its own scale." (72) But "scale" here seems an evasive consolation--albeit, a knowing one--in the face of uncharted personal pain.
Evasion is a central animating force behind the long narrative poems in Time and Materials--the poems that lie at the heart of this new volume. Formally and emotionally, these poems are a tremendous achievement. In the face of war, age, and grief, Hass confronts and turns away, detaches and perambulates, and returns with devastating finishes. These poems are remarkable for how they stage both political and personal evasiveness. "Bush's War" announces a subject that an earlier poem, "English: An Ode" (from Sun Under Wood) wonders is even fit for "song."
There are those who think it's in fairly bad taste to make habitual references to social and political problems in poems ... ... in poems which don't after all, lift a finger to help them (73)
Many readers I know who first read "Bush's War" in the March/April 2006 issue of APR indeed thought the poem was in "bad taste," or just bad; others felt it was the strongest poem to emerge out of the war in Iraq. (74) In essence, their argument rests on the ambiguity of whether Hass's language is entirely earnest or ironic: is Hass using the language of statistics with an awareness that it has become banal, or is the litany of twentieth-century atrocities an urgent pacifist cry? Has what we know about the numbers of war dead become deadened language itself? One certainty is that Hass is always sharply aware of language's limitations; yet in "Bush's War," he asserts the value and efficacy of reporting this is what has happened. The poem begins with a desire to "Set the facts out in an orderly way," but soon swerves off kilter, finding the poet-flaneur on the streets of modern-day Berlin, appraising the beauty of chestnut petals on the shoes of pedestrians at U-bahn stations, stalks of asparagus at a spring market, nightingales at dusk:
And the odor of lilacs is everywhere. At Oscar Helene Heim station a farmer Sells white asparagus from a heaped table. In a month he'll be selling chanterelles; In the month after that, strawberries And small, rosy crawfish from the Spree. The piles of stalks of the asparagus Are startlingly phallic, phallic and tender And deathly pale. Their seasonal appearance Must be the remnant of some fertility ritual Of the German tribes. Steamed, they are the color Of old ivory. (75)
Note how purposefully the images lack subtlety; later, they are duplicated in the poem's rhetoric. In the order and array of a German market--everything in its season--we find the barbarism that Walter Benjamin links with civilization. Lilacs recall Whitman's lament for Lincoln (as if someone has died, and the scent is everywhere); nightingales of course remind us of Keats; and the poem is excruciatingly self-aware of what it is as a war poem (can it be done? after Auschwitz?) vis-a-vis a romantic ode or elegy. But distinctions blur; Hass indicts Whitman (who appears frequently in the new volume), and indicts himself at the end of the poem for his earlier evasions, poetry that turns "The heaped bodies into summer fruit." (76)
The poet tries to comprehend strategies of denial, and in doing so, summons what he knows about other modern wars, attempting to meet those atrocities head on. He repeats the words "Flash forward" and "Flash," signals that light up the numbers of dead in places like Hamburg ("Fifty thousand dead in a single night"), Tokyo ("a hundred thousand / In a night"), Vietnam ("Two million Vietnamese, fifty five thousand / Of the American young") and then, "The young Arab" who drove "The plane into the office building." These specifics should be shocking. If they are Benjamin's flashes, then they should unite the past suddenly with the present, rescuing some forgotten moment. But Hass here takes facts we think we know as if we had forgotten them. The poem is like the flash of a photograph that has become banal, something we've seen too many times before. The description of Auschwitz is actually a description of a museum: "The stomach woozy, past displays of falls / Of hair, piles of valises, spectacles / With frames designed to curl delicately / Around a human ear." (77) If the artifacts of the Holocaust now seem to temper history into mere nausea, and if being in Berlin does not help the poet understand the terror of war ("In Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the spring rime / You are never not wondering how / It happened"), what will?
Benjamin detested the sterilizing function of the photograph, and Hass, his own flaneur, knows his flash is dead. Where should he look for answers? His language becomes angry, frank, verbose:
Someone will always want to mobilize Death on a massive scale for economic Domination or revenge. And the task, taken As a task, appeals to the imagination. The military is an engineering profession Look at boys playing: they love To figure out the ways to blow things up. (78)
These are not radical insights; the poem does not put pressure on how we think about the war in Iraq (which is never directly mentioned). It does not challenge us to "act." But the poem's aims are much more complicated; Hass knows that poems themselves cannot "lift a finger to help." The poem enacts the evasiveness it indicts. If we are not in the center of a war (the U-bahn stations leading in and out of the city), then it is too easy to evade what has happened and what is still happening. Numbers are necessary. The poem's force derives from both sincerity and irony, signaled by its title: Hass wants the war to belong to George W. Bush, but it is his own, even in the swerving away ffom it. Yet what can he do? The poem's end hinges on his awareness that his verbosity wil] be si]enced, that against Whitman's romanticized images ofdeath, Hass's frank truths are perhaps no better. He turns to the last lines from Goethe's short poem, "Wanderer's Nightsong," translated beautifully in an earlier seven-line poem in the volume. The last lines--"The birds are silent in the woods. / Just wait: soon enough / You will be quiet too"--mark a day's closing and remind us of our own mortality. Hass's ending, too, strikes me as powerfully mixed: both a quiet repetition of the poem's early images, and an expression of disgust with himself.
... Bald nur --Goethe--no, Warte nur, bald ruhest du auch . Just wait. You will be quiet soon enough. In Dahlem, Under the chestnuts, in the leafy spring.
A well-known site in Buchenwald was Goethe's tree, commemorating the poet's visit to the area, a history that belies the persistent beauty of a leafy spring, the persistence of a last lyrical line. Hass's self-negation also echoes Yeats' "Easter 1916": "What is it but nightfall? / No, no, not night but death; / Was it needless death after all?" Death then, not poeticized sleep. Hass seems to have buried himself under the chestnut tree with his own evasive beauty.
Other narrative poems in Time and Materials dramatize the evasions that can characterize less overtly political situations. Many are particularly striking for their use of dialogue, for their fearless use of the prose tags he said, she said. This skill is especially at work in a new poem like "Then Time." If Hass's poems often re-engage with poems from previous volumes, then this poem belongs in the same series as "Privilege of Being," though "Then Time" reunites its couple after twenty years. I quote lines from the beginning:
In winter, in a small room, a man and a woman Have been making love for hours. Exhausted, Very busy wringing out each other's body, They look at each other suddenly and laugh. "What is this?" he says. "I can't get enough of you," She says, a woman who thinks of herself as not given To cliche. She runs her fingers across his chest, Tentative touches, as if she were testing her wonder. He says, "Me too." And she, beginning to be herself Again: "You mean you can't get enough of you, either?" "I mean," he takes her arms in his hands and shakes them, "Where does this come from?" She cocks her head And looks into his face. "Do you really want to know?" Yes," he says. "Self-hatred," she says. "Longing for God." Kisses him again. "It's not what it is"--a wry shrug-- "It's where it comes from." Kisses his bruised mouth A second time, a third. Years later, in another city, They're having dinner in a quiet restaurant near a park. Fall. Earlier that day, hard rain: Leaves, brass-colored ... (79)
As with other narrative poems in the new volume, we want to know more. Notice the use of words to signify time, or passing increments: "In winter," "for hours," "Again," "A second time, a third," "Years later," "Fall," "Earlier that day." The poem relies on these signifiers ("then" is used five times) as it takes us through two moments separated by two decades. And yet, the "subject" of the poem--if we can call it that--is the sense of a relationship that is hard to remember because, as the woman says, "'we never existed inside time.'" In context of the volume, these lines reveal a dangerous compulsion to suspend experience through images--here, a relationship formed by continued rather than continual time. The man and the woman have not accumulated layers of age together, rather, their dinner is one punctuated moment. What Hass does with the poem, however, is make a reader excruciatingly aware of time passing; even if the couple isn't "in time," we are. Caesuras in nearly every single line mark a temporal shift and a shift in thought; the fastidious observations of the couple get played out in the poem's attempt to regulate an adjustment to time. But the man in the poem feels a kind of helplessness in the pleasure of his experiences, what the woman thinks of as an "earnest limitation." (80)
The poem fearlessly critiques itself as the man and woman critique each other. The woman's use of cliche is Hass's use of cliche, a move that seems to make the poem, like other more political poems, a document of an experience that really happened. But the images later in the poem--hands that have been lost or given away, a black lily, a startled deer--commit the poem to its own telling of something outside of the actual event, outside of time. The poem avails itself to the Proustian bind of life as literature by which the narrative of the poem must end even as the man and woman find no shared conclusions. Where is a poem like this going? How should it end? Each line begins with a capitalized word--like all the narrative poems in the volume--as if starting up again. But like "Bush's War," this poem is consciously unable to resolve itself. A "Chocolate-black lily" is the metaphor for endings in the poem, and this poem has its own surprise conditional, the woman's memory of her past self:
From a distance, the way a driver might see from the road A startled deer running across an open field in the rain. Wild thing. Here and gone. Death made it poignant, or, If not death exactly, which she'd come to think of As creatures seething in a compost heap, then time.
The authority of those last two stresses--"then time"--dissolves the returning echo of Stevens' line, "Death is the mother of beauty." The poem is skeptical of finality, and obliquely revises Stevens' line like another one of its proposals and corrections.
No wonder both of these poems and many others are so long: confident length is what Hass achieves--not unlike the circular, roundabout poems that dominate Stevens' later work--as he moves out and beyond the ostensible subject of each poem and then back into it again. Hass faces formlessness, the lack of an ending, and then gives these narrative poems especially sharp, conclusive ends. "Time" is his subject, but only insofar as we create bounded forms sized to human scale, within reach, made of "materials" with which we have always been familiar. Stevens, in this volume as in others, is one of Hass's essential "materials"--a poet who articulates the temptations and terrors of magnitude while fundamentally returning to the value of the earth. If a paradise of angels or a crystal-pure realm exists beyond this one, then it is strangely constituted by the same stuff as the world within which we already live. "It may be a shade that traverses / A dust, a force that traverses a shade," Stevens writes at the end of "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," a proposal that situates the immaterial as a product of sun and sky, of the composition of the earth. Hass's generous register of Stevens' influence sharpens our sense of this secular, material line in Stevens, simultaneously illuminating Hass as a poet whose field guide has always measured the small and the immense.
(1.) Robert Hass, Human Wishes (New York: The Ecco Press, 1989), p. 69.
(2.) Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York, Vintage, 1990), p. 325. Hereafter cited as CP.
(3.) Human Wishes, p. 69.
(4.) Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Ed. and Trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 157.
(5.) Robert Hass, "Looking for Rilke," The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, p. xv.
(6.) Human Wishes, p. 69.
(8.) Robert Hass, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 (forthcoming): p. 19. In "Dedication," Milosz writes: "They used to pour millet on graves or poppyseeds / To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds." Selected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz (Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1973), P-45.
(9.) Human Wishes, p. 70.
(10.) "Looking for Rilke," p. xv.
(11.) However, recent scholarship has situated Stevens' work in a social, historical, and political context. See Alan Filreis' Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (1991) and Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, and Literary Radicalism (1994). See also James Longenbach's Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (1991) which complements Filreis' intensive archival work in assessing Stevens' poetry within the contextualizing history of Stevens' career.
(12.) Stevens seems to have become a bigger figure than ever. The 2004 conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of his Collected Poems made clear that his influence extends not only to well-established poets like John Ashbery or Lorie Graham, but to more avant-garde poets like Susan Howe, who reminded the audience of Stevens' adage, "All poetry is experimental poetry." Howe also claimed that Stevens "is our American Coleridge," and then later in conversation, that Stevens is indeed the greatest American poet. See The Wallace Stevens Journal 28, no. 2 (Fall 2004) for a written version of her talk.
(13.) CP, p. 412.
(14.) T. S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, Ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.): 39.
(15.) CP, p. 526.
(16.) I take my cue from Terrence Doody, whose judicious 1997 overview of Hass's work situates the prose-like poems of Human Wishes as forms of measurement against a world charged with desire. See "From Image to Sentence: The Spiritual Development of Robert Hass," The American Poetry Review 26, no. 2 (Mar/Apr 1997): 47-56.
(17.) Robert Hass, Praise (New York: The Ecco Press, 1979), p. 50.
(18.) Rainer Maria Rilke to Witold Hulewicz, November 13, 1925. Quoted in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, p. 317.
(19.) CP, p. 405.
(20.) Robert Hass, "Wallace Stevens," The Threepenny Review 50 (Summer 1992), p. 6.
(22.) Robert Hass, Field Guide (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973), p. 24.
(23.) Field Guide, p. 34.
(24.) Helen Vendler, Words Chosen Out of Desire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 10-28.
(25.) Robert Hass, "What Furies," Twentieth Century Pleasures (New York: The Ecco Press), p. 91.
(26.) Email to author, 07/31/2006.
(27.) Time and Materials mss, p. 38.
(28.) Time and Materials mss, p. 22.
(29.) Time and Materials mss, p. 56.
(30.) Time and Materials mss, p. 67.
(31.) Time and Materials mss, p. 24.
(32.) Praise, p. I.
(33.) "Reading Milosz," Twentieth Century Pleasures, p. 212.
(34.) Time and Materials mss, p. 24.
(35.) Time and Materials mss, p. e5.
(36.) In Paul Carroll's The Young American Poets (Chicago and New York: Follett Publishing Company, 1968), p. 189, Hass argued early on against distinctions between himself and the person in his poems: "So the exploration of where I am, in this place, in relation to that person--place and person both caught somewhere between the old movements of the unconscious and the brutal, accidental collage of one's historical and geographical presence in the world---and the writing about it, as carefully as possible, are a way of being for a while one thing: no personae, no middleman or structured ambiguities, no talk about the Artist." In view of this claim, I use "speaker," "Hass," and "poet" interchangeably.
(37.) Robert Archambeau, "This Nest of Gentlefolk: Robert Hass and the Bourgeois-Bohemians," Samizdat Blog, 8 January 2006: <http://samizdatblog.blogspot.com/2006/01/this-nest-of-gentlefolk-robert -hass.html>.
(38.) Twentieth Century Pleasures, p. 176.
(39.) Time and Materials mss, p. 27.
(40.) Time and Materials mss, p. 30.
(41.) Robert Hass, "Wallace Stevens," The Threepenny Review 50 (Summer 1992), p. 6.
(42.) Human Wishes, p. 60.
(43.) Sun Under Wood, p. 76.
(44.) Praise, p. 20.
(45.) David Remnick, "A Conversation with Robert Hass," Chicago Review 32, no. 4 (Spring 1981), p. 19.
(46.) Sun Under Wood, p. 68.
(47.) Sun Under Wood, p. 73.
(48.) I quote from a manuscript chapter, entitled "Civility," of Robert yon Hallberg's forthcoming book, Lyric Powers.
(49.) Sun Under Wood, p. 3.
(51.) CP, p. 165.
(52.) Sun Under Wood, p. 4.
(53.) CP, p. 326.
(54.) Alan Filreis, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (Princeton, NI: Princeton University Press), pp. 131-137.
(55.) CP, p. 326.
(56.) Praise, pp. 51-52.
(57.) Praise, pp. 50-51.
(58.) CP, pp. 68-69.
(59.) Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Records. 1912-1961. Box 40, Folder 28, Special Collections Research Center. University of Chicago Library.
(60.) Praise, p. 50.
(61.) CP, pp. 214, 411.
(62.) Praise, p. 56.
(63.) Sun Under Wood, p. 48.
(64.) CP, p. 28.
(65.) Helen Vendler provides the best analysis of Stevens' perception of magnitude, a subject, she argues, "less foreordained in its dimensions" than the dialectical rubrics often used to understand Stevens' central preoccupations. See chapter 4 from Words Chosen Out of Desire (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 61-79.
(66.) Time and Materials mss, p. 84.
(67.) Twentieth Century Pleasures, p. 221.
(68.) Time and Materials mss. p. 14.
(69.) Alan Shapiro, "'And There Are Always Melons,' Some Thoughts on Robert Hass," Chicago Review 33, no. 3 (Winter 1983), pp. 84-90.
(70.) Charles Altieri, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 65-66.
(71.) Sun Under Wood, pp. 75-76.
(72.) Sun Under Wood, p. 76.
(73.) Sun Under Wood, pp. 65-66.
(74.) I thank members of the Poetics Workshop at The University of Chicago, as well as Ed Brunner, for a rich discussion of this issue.
(75.) Time and Materials mss, p. 59.
(76.) Time and Materials mss, p. 61.
(77.) Time and Materials mss, p. 60.
(78.) Time and Materials mss, pp. 60-61.
(79.) Time and Materials mss, p. 35.
(80.) Time and Materials mss, p. 36.
LIESL OLSON teaches at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Modernism and the Ordinary (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, 2008).
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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