Friday, March 6, 2009

Time and Materials by Robert Hass

This is another National Book Award winner, which I think caught my eye when I was reading the New York Times Book Review on a regular basis. Hass, a collaborator with Czeslaw Milosz (one of my favorite poets), writes in a style that's very quiet. With a simplicity of lines and a keen eye for theme, Hass can say more about his subject than a lot of other poets, without going over the top or being melodramatic.

Here's a good example of what I am referring to, "Envy of Other People's Poems":

"In one version of the legend the sirens couldn't sing.
It was only a sailor's story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn't hear--plungings of sea,
wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds--
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
The awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn't sing."

This is deconstruction of myth done on the down low. No grand lines about all the wrongs of the patriarchal past or anything, just "hey, what if Odysseus was terrified by the lack of what he wanted?" It's very well done, but it's done almost so subtly as to be missed. (Though, since this *did* win a major award, perhaps I am wrong in saying it could be overlooked.)

In "The Problem of Describing Trees", Hass takes a few licks, again very quietly, at poetry itself:

"The apsen glitters in the wind
And that delights us.

The leaf flutters, turning,
Because that motion in the heat of August
Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.

The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.

It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.

Mountains, sky,
The aspen doing something in the wind."

Am I reading too much into Hass's lines? Maybe, but that's the fun of being a reviewer, you get to put your own spin on things. "Art and Life", a longer poem, uses a painter as the subject, but the theme also seems to tie into a poet and his writing. I'll only reproduce the ending here:

"...Here is the life that chose you
And the one you chose. Here is the brush, horsehair,
Hair of the badger, the goat's beard, the sable,
And here is the smell of paint. The volitile, sharp oils
Of linseed, rapeseed. Here is the stench of the essence
Of pinewood in a can of turpentine. Here is the hand,
Flick of wrist, tendon-ripple of the brushstroke. Here--
Cloud, lake water lifting on a summer morning,
Ash and ash and chalky ash--is the stickiness of paint
Adhering to the woven flax of the canvas, here
Is the faithfulness of paint on paint on paint on paint.
Something stays this way we cannot have,
Comes alive because we cannot have it."

Change a few of those words, and it's a comment on the writer trying to capture that which he sees and that which he imagines.

And hey, even if you don't agree with me in relation to the meaning--look at that artistry of the flow of the poem. The density of the words, the beauty of the repetition, the power and description placed in every line. This poem itself is a work of art!

As with Milosz, the poems collected here either come from personal experience or are written in such a way as to make the reader feel close to the speaker. There is an intimacy that comes out through the pages which draws me into work such as Hass' that other writers cannot match. We could make character sketches of the speakers, be they women performing daily tasks or a young boy watching his father pull power trips over his wife in the underbelly of the 1950s.

Not all the poems are quite so serious. Hass includes a section of playful writing with his friend Milosz, based on the difference between "o" and "oh", and there's even a short piece featuring cucumber, called, appropriately enough, "Poem with a Cucumber In It." Another poem is an argument between two lovers that's written in verse with dashes indicating the change in speakers. The variety of styles is actually quite amazing.

I usually end poetry reviews with one more parting line from the artist, but I think this time I will merely recommend Hass' work to you, because there really is no definitive piece to quote. As vast as it is quiet, this book's materials will definitely hold up over time.

(I did not, please note, promise not to leave on a horrible pun based on the book's title.)

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