Thursday, November 15, 2007

Time and Materials, Poems 1997-2005: Robert Hass Wins the National Book Award in Poetry

The arc of the well-crafted poetry collection is easiest to perceive when you read the entire collection at once -- which is very difficult to do with TIME AND MATERIALS. The poems opening the volume are small, direct, simple as a droplet lingering on the end of a rain-washed leaf. Love, sensuous love, love's beauty: it shivers among the lines, as in the third segment of "Three Dawn Songs in Summer":

Because he has opened his eyes, he must be light
And she, sleeping beside him, must be the visible,
One ringlet of hair curled about her ear.
Into which he whispers, "Wake up!"
"Wake up!" he whispers.

And then, meandering more deeply into a forest of experience, the word-foliage grows verdant, lush, entangled. "The Problem of Describing Color" shatters in fragmented lines and visions. "Winged and Acid Dark" probes a horrible moment described as taking place in occupied Berlin in 1945. And then suddenly artists, languages, cultures mount upon each other like pyramids of meaning whose stony contours resist time and weather. Hass transforms the words of Tomas Tranströmer and Czeslaw Milosz into layers of image and movement.

Another strand that tugs the poems together is protest: of war, of abuse, of the capacity to ignore history's clear lessons. The poem "Bush's War" roots in the violence of Germany in the Second World War, but equally in the firebombing of Tokyo, the martyrdom of Arab suicide bombers, and in the tender ministrations of Walt Whitman in the most American of all wars. The arc of the book insists on the presence of truth that is multilayered, multisourced, rich as a choral symphony.

Hass has said that he writes one poem at a time, seeing the arc as the poems begin to form a gathering. The design of this bright volume with its jacket patchworked in red silks and flowers and birds draws the interior outward, echoing "The Problem of Describing Color": "If I said fire, if I said blood welling from a cut --"

Even the elegant table of contents insists on an equality and persistence of verse titles as they pile one upon another to form the whole.

There will be many analyses of this poet's newest contribution, and winning the National Book Award only intensifies the spotlight that would aim here, no matter the award. This is the work of a poet not yet old enough (born on 1941) to be saying "I told you so" or "farewell," not locked so securely to one place (though he was born in California, lives in California, teaches in California) to stand only for that place, but instead a full glory of a tree in leaf, an eagle in flight, a poet unhidden.

I close with a full poem from the work, one that will bear much scrutiny as Hass himself declares it rooted in his eight years of commitment to environment, rivers, Earth:

Ezra Pound's Proposition

Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility
Of the earth is economics. Though he is no recommendation
For poets on the subject of finance,
I thought of him in the thick heat
Of the Bangkok night. Not more than fourteen, she saunters up to you
Outside the Shangri-la Hotel
And says, in plausible English,
“How about a party, big guy?”

Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
In Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed
By Lazard Frères in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,
Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco
Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,
Spun by the force of rushing water,
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.

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