The American poet Robert Hass wasn’t someone I’d taken much notice of until a Tuesday Poem friend shared ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’. It was extraordinary - not just the way the poet used words, but the thread of reasoning that moved through the poem. This was a poem about love, memory, longing (‘desire is full/of endless distances), and language itself:
.......‘the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.’
So I looked for more of Robert Hass’s work. The Apple Trees at Olema runs to 352 pages and contains a selection from five previous volumes and a generous helping of new work, so I thought it would be a good introduction and I was right. This isn’t a book to skim through. I’ve taken months and months reading carefully through the different sections, reading and thinking, reading and underlining, going backwards and forwards. Now that I’ve finished the collection I’m about to start again - this time just dipping in and out to remind myself, to go swimming in poetry that is unique and exceptional.
He has a gift for choosing images and phrases that lodge in your mind; ‘Quiver dipped the nib of his pen/into the throat of the inkwell.’ ‘The wind-chivvied water,’ ‘The sky is inventing a Web site called newest azure.’ ‘They are built like exclamation points, woodpeckers.’ ‘Where the fat green figs hung like so many scrotums/among the leaves.’ Poetry - language - is itself a kind of translation. Robert Hass writes ‘as if language were a kind of moral cloud chamber/through which the world passed and from which it emerged charged/with desire.’
Hass translates Czeslaw Milosz, as well as Japanese poetry and each poem has a depth of knowledge behind it of European and eastern traditions, history, psychology and philosophy. You’re aware of this hinterland as you read, but you don’t need to know any of it to understand the poems. Louise Gluck described his work as ‘entirely his own: a complex hybrid of the lyric line, with an unwavering fidelity to human and non-human nature, and formal variety and surprise, and a syntax capable of thinking through difficult things in ways that are both perfectly ordinary and really unusual’.
Some of the poems are autobiographical - growing up with an alcoholic mother, the break-up of a marriage, death of a brother. But it’s the way he tells stories that impresses me most. Some of the longer poems seem to be short fiction (one of them is called Novella), the shorter ones could qualify as flash fiction - and it could be argued that they’re prose poetry - they cross the borderlines of genre. Because it’s flash fiction day in the UK tomorrow, I thought I’d quote one of the poems from his collection Human Wishes. 'Museum' has a lot of resonance for me because I visited the same museum and looked at the work of Käthe Kollwitz, just at a time when eastern Europe was emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. Robert Hass manages to get the whole experience into a very small space.
On the morning of the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit, a young man and woman come into the museum restaurant. She is carrying a baby; he carries the air-freight edition of the Sunday New York Times. She sits in a high-backed wicker chair, cradling the infant in her arms. He fills a tray with fresh fruit, rolls, and coffee in white cups and brings it to the table. His hair is tousled, her eyes are puffy. They look like they were thrown down into sleep and then yanked out of it like divers coming up for air. He holds the baby. She drinks coffee, scans the front page, butters a roll, and eats it in their little corner in the sun. After a while, she holds the baby. He reads the Book Review and eats some fruit. Then he holds the baby while she finds the section of the paper she wants and eats fruit and smokes. They’ve hardly exchanged a look. Meanwhile, I have fallen in love with this equitable arrangement, and with the baby who cooperates by sleeping. All around them are faces Käthe Kollwitz carved in wood of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kinds of pain: hunger, helpless terror. But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible.
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The Apple Trees at Olema is published in UK by Bloodaxe Books (there's a good video clip of Hass reading) and in the USA by Ecco Press (Harper Collins)