Alan Williamson, American po, Augustine, Czeslaw Milosz, Dan Bogan, Denise Levertov, EM Forster, Enjambment, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gary Snyder, George Bush, Heidegger, Husserl, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Kant, Levi Straus, Literary criticism, Louis Althusser, Love, Memory, Peter Davison, Poetics, Profile, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Hass, Robinson Jeffers, Sexuality, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Carlyle, Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth
“Meditation at Lagunitas” rides, as Robert Frost says a poem must, on its own melting: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove”. It is perhaps my favourite poem. But writing about favourite poems — as Robert Hass himself notes in his collection of essays, Twentieth Century Pleasures — “is probably a hopeless matter.” You can analyze the music of the poem, he writes, “but it’s difficult to conduct an argument about its value, especially when it’s gotten into the blood. It becomes autobiography there”.
I first read “Lagunitas” in 1991 — almost twenty years after Hass first published it — and there was so little in it of what I see now, that it amazes me to remember what it was I originally saw. It was the time of the Gulf War, and I was living at the edge of Oceanside, one of California’s largest military towns. Determined to “not let this be another Vietnam,” baby-boomers declared their support for their boys abroad by flying U.S. flags, rescued from the tangle of Christmas lights in their attics, in the skies above their manicured lawns. My neighbours even went so far as to attach plastic “stars and stripes” to the antennas of their Mazda minivans and Volvo stationwagons. One afternoon, I remember, after Bush had issued one of his ultimatums to “Sadim,” as he deliberately “misspoke,” two hundred students from UCSD laid their collective body across five lanes of California highway and stopped traffic for about two hours. Local reporters, overnight celebrities, largely ignored the incident and talked instead of “peacekeeping,” “humanitarian intervention” and “friendly fire.” Operation “Desert Storm” rivaled “The Cold War” for its poetry: from CNN, not Derrida, I learned that language is slick, and meaning is without a centre.
“Lagunitas” is a meditation not on loss but the idea of loss. With its majestic opening, “all the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking”, Hass locates the reader in the realm of abstractions where the “luminous clarity of the general idea” is privileged over “each particular”. The idea, for example:
That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light.
Or the 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”. Hass has never shied away from the language of theoretical discourse. In fact, as Don Bogen notes, “he finds a rarefied music in the polysyllabic abstractions, long clauses and parallel constructions of his argument”. Language here is reduced to its barest essentials, to strings of spondaic feet — “trunk / of that black birch is” or “there is in this world no one thing / to which” — that hit the air like a philosopher’s finger. Deprived of traditional harmonic concepts, Hass’ prosody, in these cases, is absent a feeling of key. Still, I find a dark, almost brooding, beauty to the lines, like the beauty I have found in Nietzsche after reading Foucault.
But “talking this way”, Hass understands, after a while dissolves everything: “justice, / pine, hair, woman, you and I ”, an understanding that is at once a lament for the dissolution of language and a critique of “all the new thinking.” So to fill the resultant void — or test these philosophical axioms along his pulses — Hass recalls a woman he made love to, and remembers how, holding her small shoulders in his hands sometimes, he “felt a violent wonder at her presence / like a thirst for salt”. And it is this violent wonder, Hass’ meditation on presence, which yields the poem’s loveliest lines, complete with bittersweet enjambment: “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances”.
Ironically, it is with the dissolution of language and the commencement of memory, that Hass finds his stride in his heartbeat, and the iambic meter begins: “But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread, / the thing her father said that hurt her, what / she dreamed”. It is not the hands that break the bread as much as the sounds of the words. The surprise of dismantled — a word associated more with regimes and contraptions than with hands and bread — an ugly duckling turned swan by its iambic necessity: the more expected broke would have disrupted the metre, thereby emphasising the bread and not the act. And, in the next line — perfect iambic pentameter — the stresses land cleanly on the thing her father said and what she dreamed, emphasising that it is particulars which create meaning not erase them.
It is the absolute humanity of these lines that moves, and sometimes crushes, me. Hass’ voice resounds with devotion to remembrance, as if his memory of the woman — his true companion in the etymological sense of the word, the one he eats bread with — might save him The scene is erotically charged and yet, evocative of holy communion, it glows with an aura of religiosity. But one need not be religious — and I am not — to appreciate the astounding beauty of Hass’ ultimate realisation: “there are moments when the body is as numinous / as words, days that are the good flesh continuing”.
Perhaps this is why, after reading Jacques Lacan in 1994, I felt — upon rereading “Lagunitas” — as if I were standing in my bedroom and seeing that I was without a floor. “Lagunitas,” I saw, was not simply a meditation on the idea of loss, but an actual working model of Lacan’s theory of the unconscious. Suddenly, Hass’ “clown-faced woodpecker” became an instance of mere lack (manque); his bramble of blackberry, without a corresponding signified, indicated need (besoin); and his beloved, simply the conscious object of his desire (désir).
Without exception, “Lagunitas” models every stage of Lacan’s theory: the Mirror-Stage, where the child experiences itself as le Désire de la Mère is “a first world / of undivided light”; the psychic field of the Imaginary, where reality is grasped purely as images and fantasies for the fulfillment of desire, is Hass’ thirst “for his childhood river / with its island willows, [and] silly music from the pleasure boat”; the field of the Symbolic, where repression and the unconscious begins as the child learns the names of things, is the “muddy places where we caught little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed”; the Name-of-the-Father (le Nom-du-Pére which, in French, is pronounced like the No-of-the-Father), where desired objects are replaced by metaphor and metonymy is, of course, “the thing her father said that hurt her”; and finally, the field of the Real, which seems to mean those incomprehensible aspects of experience that exist beyond the grasp of images and symbols through which we think and constitute reality, is Hass’ “moments when the body is numinous as words”.
But this exegesis, brief as it is, is not my hamfisted attempt to fit “Lagunitas” into Lacan’s theory of the unconscious. Rather it is a reading which Hass himself not only courts but has carefully constructed. First, the scene is set with “all the new thinking…about loss” — Derrida and Althusser perhaps — resembling the old — Lacan and Freud among others. And second, “Lagunitas” is strewn with synonyms of post-structuralist deconstruction: erase, divide, dissolve and dismantle. As evidence that Hass was conscious of his word choice in this way — twenty-five years later — Hass uses “dismantle” again in “Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer”:
This was a time when,
in the universities, everyone was reading Derrida.
Who’d set out to write a dissertation about time;
he read Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Augustine, and found
that there was no place to stand from which to talk about it.
There was no ground. It was language. The scandal
of nothingness! Put cheerfully to work by my colleagues
to dismantle regnant ideologies.
This tactic of literary referencing is one of Hass’ most extended poetic tropes; everywhere his poems describe their sources and discuss what they do or do not or cannot mean. One of my favourite examples of this trope occurs in Praise — nineteen poems after “Lagunitas” — with a poem I had largely ignored for years, “Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan.” In it, Hass recasts the conversation in “Lagunitas” and has “stopped talking about L’Histoire de la vérité, /about subject and object / and the mediation of desire”. He has blocked his ears,
beard stained purple
by the word juice,
goes to get another pot.
I love the humour in this resolution. But what brings “a thin wire of grief to my voice, / a tone almost querulous”, is the idea that “Lagunitas” is not, as I had originally imagined it to be, “the repository of a unique history which makes each of us an irreplaceable being”. Rather, it is like Levi Straus’ unconscious: “reducible to a function, the symbolic function” which, in turn, is merely “the aggregate of the laws of language”.
That a poem can have more than one meaning is not a radical idea. But it can be a disturbing idea, particularly with favourite poems, and particularly when a new reading threatens to undo an earlier one. I can find no “happy mediums” here, only tension: the tension between an original meaning found in melody and a newer meaning found in text books; the tension between always being inscribed within language and the understanding that language does not comprise our ultimate reality; and the tension, finally, between the inadequacy of language and a poem brimming with meaning.
But it is tension, I have found, which keeps “Lagunitas” alive. The idea, then, must be not to resolve but to leap. And because I love so much Hass’ gift of the leap — what Denise Levertov calls “the X-factor, the magic” that happens when we come to rifts, to “undreamed abysses,” and we find ourselves “sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side” in “ecstasy” — I conclude with the final lines of “Meditation at Lagunitas”:
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
Which is beautiful, any way you melt it.
“It is summer as I write, / Northern California. Clear air, a blazing sky in August, / bright shy Audubon’s warblers in the pines,” writes Hass in “The Garden of Warsaw”. Although Hass’ 1997 collection, Sun Under Wood, contains poems with settings in Alaska, Korea, Warsaw, Iowa City and New Jersey, critic Alan Williamson identifies Hass as the poet in his generation “who has made California landscapes most memorably symbolic”:
The landscape is mostly Berkeley, with the long Japanese-print views of the Golden Gate; the Marin County uplands; an occasional glimpse of the Sierras. What it embodies is not majesty, as in Jeffers, or a transhuman alertness, as in Snyder, but a mellow clarity, a late-afternoon warmth in which longing is bounded, life is found acceptable.
“Sweet smell of timothy in the meadow. / Clouds massing east above the ridge in a sky / as blue as the mountain lakes”, Williamson quotes from Hass’ “My Mother’s Nipples” to illustrate his point.
Yet, charm and modesty noted, Peter Davison objects to Hass’ frequent use of “passive, copulative or auxiliary verbs” in his descriptions and complains that Hass’ poems “keep relaxing into the voice of an onlooker rather than taking on the energy of full participation — as though they came to the poet through a window, filter, a screen of white noise and unscented air”. Davison’s assessment is not atypical: it is a slight heard frequently not only from Hass’ critics but also from his otherwise admiring readers. As one “customer reviewer” from Amazon.com wrote of Hass’ Sun Under Wood, “more nature stuff than I remember from Praise, which I rarely understand the point of. It seems an overly romantic view of the world.” Another admitted, “this may be a personal bias of mine; I often find Hass’ longer [nature] poems tiring and repetitive.” But the real surprise comes when Hass himself directly confronts this criticism in “Interrupted Meditation” which discloses a conversation between Hass and, I assume, his friend and colleague, Czeslaw Milosz, who is speaking:
Of course, here, gesturing out the window, pines, ragged green
of a winter lawn, the bay, you can express what you like,
enumerate the vegetation. And you! you have to, I’m afraid,
since you don’t excel at metaphor. A shrewd, quick glance
to see how I have taken this thrust. You write well, clearly.
I still smile when I read these lines. Clearly, Hass has taken the “thrust” well. Not only does Hass “out” this criticism of his poetry, taking his own “shrewd, quick…thrust” at his detractors, but he also provides a parody of it. And it amuses me also because until recently I, too, shared this view.
Until recently, I say, because I no longer read Hass’ landscapes this way. When I think of poets where nature figures prominently in their work, I am inclined to think of Wordsworth’s “glory in the flower” or Whitman “nose down in the grass.” But Hass’ experience of nature, I believe, is quite different. It is not transcendent euphoria. It is, I believe, his private symbol of loss.
For instance, circling back to Williamson, it is entirely possible to get an impression of “mellow clarity” from the lines he quotes from “My Mother’s Nipples, but only if the reader omits the stanza’s first line, “what we’ve never had is a song”, and its last three: “the many seed shapes of the many things / finding their way into flower or not, / that the wind scatters,” which bracket the stanza in melancholy. Or more clearly, if the reader chooses not to read the prose stanza that immediately follows it:
I came home from school and she was gone. I don’t know what in-
stinct sent me to the park. I suppose it was the only place I could
think of where someone might hide: she had passedout under an or-
ange tree, curled up. Her face, flushed, eyelids swollen, was a ruin.
Though I needed urgently to know whatever was in it, I could
hardly bear to look. When I couldn’t wake her, I decided to sit with
her until she woke up. I must have been ten years old: I suppose I
wanted for us to look like a son and mother who had been picnick-
ing, like a mother who had fallen asleep in the warm light and scent
of orange blossoms and a boy who was sitting beside her daydream-
ing, not thinking about anything in particular.
The “justified” text and unwarranted word breaks draw attention to the self-consciousness of both the boy and the adult poet. It is as if Hass is commenting on his tactic of literary referencing as he does in “Our Lady of the Snows” where the mother is visited “in a hospital drying out,” and her son, learning to bear his “navigable sorrow” stands at his older brother’s closet “studying the shirts,” convinced that he “could be absolutely transformed / by something [he] could borrow”. To me Hass views nature this way, as if it is a shirt — or even a body — that he can borrow.
“Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer,” I believe, provides the key to understanding Hass’ private symbol. It is a poem about emptiness, or rather “two emptinesses: one made of pain and desire and one made of vacancy”. Consider, for example, the juxtaposition in these lines: “my throat so swollen with some unsortable mix / of sorrow and desire I couldn’t swallow — / salt smell, grey water, sometimes the fog came in”. Just as lungs fill with air when the pressure is greater outside the body than within, Hass is “filled” with nature when he is at his emptiest. He continues:
and I’d present my emptiness, which was huge, baffled
(Rilke writing in French because there was no German equivalent
for l’absence in ‘the great positive sense’
with which it appeared in Valéry:
one of my minor occupations was raging against Rilke),
and most of the time I felt nothing,
when the moment came that was supposed to embody presence,
nothing really. There were a few buffleheads,
as usual, a few gulls rocking in the surf.
Nature, then, is a mask for his own disembodiment. His “baffled” emptiness is filled by the off-rhyme of the buffleheads. This gesture is also present in “Sonnet” which begins with “A man talking to his ex-wife on the phone” who, we are told, “has loved her voice and listens with attention / to every modulation of its tone”. He knows the voice “intimately” but knows not “what he wants / from the sound of it, from the tendered civility”. And with this admission of need and longing, the man “studies, out the window, the seed shapes / of the broken pods of ornamental trees”. Unlike “Lagunitas,” this poem does not melt as if “ice on a hot stove,” but continues to dissipate, its thrust irrecoverably lost, until it ends on the line “patient animals, and tangled vines, and rain”. Another illustration, my favourite, of Hass using nature as a body comes from “Interrupted Meditation”:
She sat on the couch sobbing, her rib cage shaking
for its accumulated abysses of grief and thick sorrow.
I don’t love you, she said. The terrible thing is
(In my edition of Sun Under Wood the page breaks on this line, making turning the page a shattering act, knowing as I do the next two lines by heart.)
that I don’t think I ever loved you. He thought to himself
what he had done to provoke it. It was May.
And with “May” we know where Hass is headed; out of his body and out the window:
Also pines, lawn, the bay, a blossoming apricot.
Everyone their own devastation. Each on its own scale.
“When you look past my shoulder and out the window,” Hass said in a lecture on imagery, “it is not an aspen you see quivering in the snow, but the play of light on your retinas.” I remember being disappointed with this idea and, when I transcribed it into my journal, I wrote above it, “which robs the world of yet another tree.” But these days I am inclined to see Hass’ comment as another rewriting, another retelling, of his private symbol of loss. But, as Octavio Paz has said, “the feeling of separation is universal.” Paz continues:
It is born at the moment of our birth: as we are wrenched from the Whole, we fall into an alien land. This experience becomes a wound that never heals. It is the unfathomable depth of every man; all our ventures and exploits, all our acts and dreams, are bridges designed to overcome the separation and reunite us with the world and our fellow beings. Each man’s life, and the collective history of mankind, can be seen as an attempt to reconstruct the original situation. An unfinished and endless cure for our divided condition.
By “experiencing” the aspen this way, as enscripted onto his body, Hass attempts this reconstruction. As do all of his poems, I suppose.
“Private pain is easy in a way,” Hass says in “Regalia,” “it doesn’t go away, but you can teach yourself to see its size”. I remember the years following my own divorce, years of my own devastation, when I liked to hike barefoot in California’s San Jacinto mountains. “I have feet like hooves,” I would joke. But it wasn’t a joke — it was my private ritual — walking until I could feel something and, if I was lucky, it was only my feet. On a good day, I would make it as far as “Hidden Lake” and, if it was winter, my body would tear the thin crust of ice as I stepped into it. And I would stand, or sit if I could bear it, until my heart beat so loud I could find it. When I got home, if I was lucky, I was hungry.
In 1997 I attended the annual Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop in Lake Tahoe, California. The idea of the week-long workshop is to write a poem a day, and then workshop it with a “celebrity poet” the next day. My last workshop was with Robert Hass — who was still US Poet Laureate at the time — and I was terribly nervous. But when the moment arrived, it felt a little anticlimactic. His comments on participants’ work were sparse and random, and I got the impression, for all his empathy, that Hass was pained by the process. Or rather, pained by the workshop’s mandate of “positive comments only” — a flawed philosophy, I believe, that insists that poets learn more from being told what is good than what is not; or at least, the philosophy goes, it keeps them writing. And flawed, I say, because it seems to me — a self-accused Romantic — that the whole is better than any half. I thought of Hass’ “minor occupation of raging against Rilke” and wondered if he felt at all stifled, trapped as he was, on only one side of a dialectic. I never did find out. I had written a poem called “Betel Nut and Lime” and it was up next. Hass said he liked my “blank couplets,” that a writer of good couplets was rare, and that he envied my material. I felt I was up to more criticism than that, wanting so desperately to learn, but in the end I was grateful for the fragment.
After the last poem of the workshop was read, Hass was silent. While the other poets offered their praise and “suggestions in the spirit of options,” Hass stared at the floor. He appeared happy or sad, but mostly puzzled. When the commentaries petered into silence, Hass looked up, a little startled to find us still with him. He smiled. “The first word of the first poem on the first day was sorrow,” he said, “and the last word of the last poem on the last day is marrow.” Silence. “I’d call the week a success,” he concluded.
I left Squaw Valley that afternoon and drove south seven hours along I-5, a pittance of highway’s great unbroken length, stretching from Canada down through California’s burgeoning agricultural belt to Mexico. I felt at once invincible and vulnerable as I drove through a herd of migrating butterflies and, in my head, I wrote a first draft of “Driving into Distance.” But once home, instead of writing out my new poem, I sat down to a cup of green tea and rifled through the copious notes and poems I had collected during the week. I needed to locate the first day of workshop. From sorrow to marrow. Its marvel of assonance and rhyme — Carlyle’s “melody that lies hidden in it” — its serendipity and transformation. It felt too near-perfect for coincidence; so near perfect as to appear contrived. I just had to know if Hass was correct. He was. Only connect.
First published in Blue Dog: Australian Poetry 1.1 (2002): 74–80