Saturday, September 22, 2007

Saturday Night with Robert Hass

This day started glumly with the specter of 40 freshmen papers to grade on a shimmering autumn day. I wanted to be elsewhere. Doing something, anything, else. All those oppressive theres for theirs and vice versa, mixing up the place with people. There were no theirs there, as Gertrude Stein would not have said. All those defiantlies for definitelies, adverbs all earnestly confused by silly spell-check. Their grip on rules is slippery at best, these children of the American high school.

But they were writing about the Farmers' Market, and as I read them I began to hope: they sampled cheese and apples and stared at red speckled beans and noticed the man with a funny hat and let the chocolate from a fresh croissant squish out onto their chins and looked into barrels of fish and made the vendors name them: whitefish, wide-mouthed bass, catfish. They made fun of the overweight rock band but sat in the sun to listen. They chose honey wheat bread and noticed a woman slowly going down the aisle (they spelled it isle, but still) in a walker. They bought cheap lockets and they held hands with their boyfriends and bought pints of raspberries and baskets of plums.

So I gradually perked up. At the end of the day, I went for a walk, wanting to go as fast as possible, wanting to breathe in the almost-autumn evening. Without my now-familiar backpack, I felt light and lithe. Back home, I poured myself two fingers of single malt and sank into a deep bath as, on the TV in the background, Tom Friedman repeated his mantra to Tim Russert: compete, connect, collaborate? Is that the third C? I'm always missing something.

Fresh from all this generally joyful sensory mishmash, it felt right to settle down with Liesl Olson's piece in the latest American Poetry Review, "Robert Hass's Guilt or The Weight of Wallace Stevens." I'm especially interested in Hass because he made a memorable visit here to UM - Flint in the fall of '06, coming to support and celebrate our "Green Arts" program designed around the Flint River Watershed. After reading from some of his new poems at a big community event, he genially lingered at the de rigueur party in my own living room. He seemed to love the Flint River in the same way he has loved many rivers, and just before his reading that night, he went off by himself to walk along the river, a beleaguered waterway that people are only beginning to see -- again -- as life and art. He said it looked as beautiful as a French painting. My students and I have never forgotten that.

Anyway, I didn't think Olson's treatment was much about guilt -- though certainly that is present in his work and that point would have been clearer had she noted his alcoholic mother; can any child of a drunk mom not feel guilty? It's best conveyed in "Our Lady of the Snows," I think, from his 1997 collection Sun Under Wood.

But the piece did help me understand the swing in his work between abstraction and an immersion in sense detail -- in a way, that is the manifestation of a kind of guilt, the pulling back from delight: he has been accused of "evasion," as she points out, by some critics, and in a taking the risk of "delimiting terror, in sizing it down." She asserts that 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 dwan rose in the kernel/of the almond.'" That's part of what I love about his work, though -- the assiduous naming and sensory vividness played against and offered in answer to the Big Ideas, whatever those are. I've read his poems to my students to point out that explicit, sumptuous love of naming, and then have to sit back while they notice all the abstractions, too. Why did he do that? they ask. And I say, I don't know...think about it more. Now I could quote Olson in answering, "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."

Olson's piece is accompanied by an absorbing set of 14 poems from Hass's new collection, Time and Materials. I remember when he told us the proposed title for this new book, his first in eight years, we tactfully turned away and groaned. It seemed so...plodding. But Olson says it "emerges with tremendous, expansive grace," and especially praises its confrontation with war. I can't wait to see the whole thing. Here are two tiny appetizers:

Iowa, January

In the long winter nights, a farmer's dreams are narrow.
Over and over, he enters the furrow.

After Trakl

October night, the sun going down,
Evening with its brown and blue
(Music from another room)
Evening with its blue and brown,
October night, the sun going down.

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