The summer before my senior year of college, a friend from my hometown threw a massive party, the only purpose of which was to gather as many of our classmates as possible from as far away as he could and savor our evaporating friendships. There was a fatal sense that this particular group would never be in the same room again. Dressed up in the nonchalantly classy “mad-hatter” style of southern hipsters, the men in waistcoats and jeans, the women in high-waisted dresses, we danced and drank like sixteen-year-olds at Mardi Gras.
I was falling in love with the woman I would later marry, and late in the evening, we settled our sleeping bags together on the basement floor. My roommate claimed a nearby couch. My sister’s fiancé was playing Springsteen on the piano, Alice in Wonderland was looping silently on a projector screen across the room, and a little wood fire outside was throwing light onto two or three tired faces beyond the large french windows. All night, my roommate had been carrying a small red book under his arm: Robert Hass’s Time and Materials. As my girlfriend and I fell asleep, he read us “Pears,” a startling dream poem about Hass’s dead English uncle, which ends like this:
…I notice, to my surprise, a bird,
Brilliantly yellow, a European goldfinch, perhaps,
Red in the wingtips, high up among the leaves
Of an espaliered pear tree, on which each of the pears
Has been wrapped in a translucent paper packet.
I experience my interest in the bird as irresponsible.
My uncle is holding my hand very tightly and I am
Leaning just a little to the left to see the bird more clearly—
I think it is red on the wingtips—and from that angle
I can see the child’s body slumped under the pear tree,
And think, “Well, that explains his panic,” and,
When I look again, the bird, of course, has flown.
At the time, the poem struck me only on the intellectual level. The chill I got when the dead child appears was the same you might feel watching a dancer perform a difficult leap: the weight of the thing lay in the technical difficulty of it. Hass’s free verse, which often uses five stresses per line, is almost Miltonically strong in that passage, a gathering force that leapt up before tumbling to a fine denouement in the last line. Even so, I went to sleep untouched by the references to European conflict, or by the undercurrent of horror and displacement in the rococo image of the candy-growing pear tree, and the ornate, disappearing bird.
I didn’t consider the poem again until several months later: Christmas break, I bought the collection in an Asheville bookstore and took it to my parents’ new house in Greenville, South Carolina. My roommate was on the phone, explaining his long-distance running routine over the piny terrain of the suburbs near Seattle. During that conversation he asked me to read “Pears” to him, which I did, pacing the shrub-lined walkway that lead to the front door. The December night was mild, even for the South, and I was considering blowing the folding money I’d just been given on a plane ticket to Michigan, where my girlfriend, snowed in and grumpy and medicated, had just had her wisdom teeth removed. During this second reading I realized that the underlayer of panic so evident in the last lines is present from the start:
My English uncle, a tall, shambling man, is very old
In the dream (he has been dead for thirty years)
And wears his hound’s-tooth jacket of soft tweed.
Standing against one wall, he looks nervous, panicked.
When I walk up to him to ask if he is all right, he explains
In his wry way that he is in the midst of an anxiety attack
and can’t move.
There is a shortness of breath in the fourth line’s repetition of adjectives (“nervous, panicked”), and in the staccato conjunctions that disrupt the action in line five: to, to, if. My roommate was recovering from a breakup that had left him gutted, and something in the poem’s nervous grief, his desire to hear it, and his admiration for the uncle’s character–his wry, English way of admitting he is terrified–illuminated Hass’s purpose.
I had read “Not Going to New York: A Letter,” from the collection Praise, which is mostly about Hass’s grandmother, and in it he recalls first feeling the terror of death when he looked at the “folds of her quivery white neck,” an image that he’s reminded of whenever he flies over the snow-covered arroyos on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. “Old age isn’t for sissies,” the poet remembers his grandmother telling his son, then observes: “This has nothing to do with the odd terror in my memory. / It only explains it…” Reading “Pears” over the phone and remembering this line, I realized that in Hass, art can only liberate emotions by virtue of being aloof from them. To him, a metaphor is an indifferent artifact on which we lavish meaning.
I realized that a parallel process was happening now, as we encountered the poem over the phone. My roommate could only feel his grief when it was spoken back to him in a lyric he didn’t write, just as Hass could only understand his terror when it was reduced to a symbol he didn’t invent.
“Pears” has resurfaced for me often since then, and it’s only as I’m writing this and reading it again that I’ve grasped the complex consonance and parallelism that affects the beauty of certain passages, like the two lines about the book his uncle’s parents brought for him “…[f]rom Liverpool, the deep rural dark outside of winter / And night and night sounds at the turn of the last century–” These lines make me aware that almost every image in the poem evokes a memory, which in turn evokes the huge conflicts of the 20th century. Historical reference shadows even the poem’s most intimate objects and details. I’ve read the poem to my wife so often now that when I have to leave early, in the powder-blue predawn of Massachusetts school day, she will sometimes stand in the door and throw the quotation down the driveway after me: “When I look again, the bird, of course, has flown.”
The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems arrived in 2010, and contained only a light sprinkling of new verse. My old roommate, who now lives in St. Louis, and I have grumbled over the phone for years that Hass’s still voluminous output has recently been confined to academic essays. But my grumbling ended when I picked up What Light Can Do, the 2012 collection of his new critical writing, in the slim Literature and Criticism section at Barnes and Noble. The first essay I turned to was “Wallace Stevens in the World.” The piece is biographical as much as critical, and follows the same structure as his greatest poems, such as the much anthologized “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which moves from philosophical observation (“All the new thinking is about loss”), to intimate passages about human grief (“the way her hands dismantled bread”), to the final climax where his syntax strengthens almost into blank verse, and the apparent void between word and world is jumped by a chant-like celebration of being. Similarly, in “Wallace Stevens in the World,” from What Light Can Do, Hass concludes that the essay’s meditation on a years-long relationship to the Stevens poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream” has been
…one image of the way poems happen in a life when they are lived with, rather than systematically studied. Or alternately studied and lived with, and in that way endlessly reconceived…
Hass found that experience sometimes interprets difficult poems more readily than scrutiny, that the poems that stick with us are not read by us, but happen to us, in our lives. The rhythm, and the mystical claims about language in that passage echo the end of “Meditation at Lagunitas,” where the speaker insists, “There are moments when the body is as numinous /as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.” Word and flesh are perpetually approaching one another in his work, which suffers beautifully while it searches for a way to reconcile them. So his poems have been a relief to me, because that search has also happened in my life and writing. When I’d finished “Wallace Stevens in the World,” my coffee had gone cold and my wife was restless to leave the bookstore. I sent my old roommate a text: “Hass didn’t stop writing poems. They became essays.”
Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes