by James Naiden
Born in San Francisco in 1941, Robert Hass has written some of the most memorable poetry by an American in the last half century. Through his prose about poetry, his translations (which he has done from Polish, German, Japanese, and Korean), and his stewardship as United States Poet Laureate as well, he has been a champion of the art form. Virtually all of his work is a surprise in one way or another, which a reading of The Apple Trees at Olema confirms.
First are more recent poems, as mellifluous as they are melancholy. Consider “August Notebook: A Death,” a sad poem about his brother’s demise from indigence and too much alcohol—the same affliction their mother had, according to yet another poem—as well as a longer effort reflecting a male narrator’s pain at the end of a long marriage and the beginning of a new relationship. The title is mysterious, but explication is needless: “The Red Chinese Dragon and the Shadows on Her Body in the Moonlight.” Is the poet talking about his own history? Maybe; what matters more is the language in this five-page sequence, as in these haunting middle lines:
Later he found there wasn’t a way to describe
to his lover or to his friends the moment
when he turned to his wife to say, again,
how sorry he was, and how she had seen it
coming and raised a palm and said, “Please, don’t,”
and how his son had walked him to the door
The rest is full of regret and serenely eloquent. Reading a Hass poem is always a reminder that one may have successes but also failures, inequities, deep losses, and searing memories of untoward behavior.
Hass’s first full collection, Field Guide, appeared in 1976. It is replete with the then thirty-five-year-old poet’s unforgettable early work, but in this context a number of poems ring out, such as “Palo Alto: The Marshes”—an eleven-part sequence about Mariana Richardson, a nineteenth-century figure in California history. Here is the final part, in the poet’s voice:
The otters are gone from the bay
and I have seen five horses
easy in the grassy marsh
beside three snowy egrets.
Bird cries and the unembittered sun,
wings and the white bodies of the birds,
it is morning. Citizens are rising,
to murder in their moral dreams.
Much of Hass’s poetry is concerned with the mortal penchant for outrageous duplicity. He sees it, remembers it, but does not lecture or become rancorous. It is important for an artist to record such things, as well as love, beauty, ugliness, dying, and transient nobility. Hass also writes of his own fragility, as in the last part of “Meditation at Lagunitas” from Praise, his second collection:
There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island windows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
Hass’s poems can also be somberly humorous, as in this short poem, “Forty Something,” from 1996’s Sun Under Wood:
She says to him, musing, “If you ever leave me,
and marry a younger woman and have another baby,
I’ll put a knife in your heart.” They are in bed,
so she climbs onto his chest, and looks directly
down into his eyes. “You understand? Your heart.”
His more recent poems, such as “The Yellow Bicycle,” “The Pure Ones,” and “Regalia For A Black Hat Dancer,” are no less insightful, with considerable inscape: “I don’t think I could have told the pain of loss / from the pain of possibility, / though I knew they weren’t the same thing.”
There is no doubt that Hass’s political sympathies do not lie with those who promote needless military conflict and the cruelty that always results—the strong images and observations in “Bush’s War” attest to this. He is a master of the long poem, such as “I Am Your Waiter Tonight And My Name Is Dmitri,” which illustrates how many divergent strains Hass can include in a single poem: Vietnam, Iraq, Dostoyevsky’s characters, dishes of raspberry and chocolate, a gardener who once worked for Emily Dickinson, and many more images are here developed in Hass’s richly allusive mind and rush of associations.
The title poem of this book appeared in Hass’s third collection, Human Wishes, in 1989. Describing the apple trees, he writes:
every bough and the wood of the limbs looked rotten
but the trees were wild with blossoms and a green fire
of small new leaves flickered even on the deadest branches.
The Apple Trees at Olema offers ample evidence of Robert Hass’s best and new work. It is a significant collection by one of our finest poets.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010