Michael ondaatje: a lion at the cat’s table

Review of The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

In English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it. But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner.

ondaatjeIn English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it.

But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner. In politics and business, the cat’s table is reserved for the office that exists but has lost the authority to act. It is also the title of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel.

The Cat’s Table opens in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was formerly known) in the early 1950s with an eleven-year-old boy boarding the Oronsay, a liner bound for England. At mealtimes he sits at Table 76 – “the least privileged place” in the dining hall – with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, and an eccentric array of adults: among them a frequently tanked pianist who teaches the boys dirty lyrics; a botanist who tends an Ayurvedic garden in the ship’s hold; and a quirky spinster who consumes crime novels and houses pigeons in her jacket.

While the doyens of the Captain’s table “constantly toast one another’s significance,” the boy learns that all that is interesting happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. “It would always be strangers,” the adult narrator reflects, “at the various Cat’s Tables of my life, who would alter me.”

Seemingly The Cat’s Table courts a biographical reading: both the author and the narrator are named Michael, both were born in Colombo in 1943, both emigrate from Ceylon to England in 1954, both relocate to Canada as young men, and both become feted writers. In his “Author’s Note”, however, Ondaatje insists his “imagined rendering” is fiction, not memoir. It is an unnecessary disclosure: anyone familiar with Ondaatje’s oeuvre will know his project has long been to dissolve the boundaries of fact and fiction. But given the felonious events that transpire on board the Oronsay – sorcery, larceny, murder and more – perhaps a distinction was thought legally prudent.

Whether the author and the narrator share an antipathy toward authority or not, Ondaatje has been dining at the Captain’s table since his second novel, The English Patient, won the Booker Prize in 1992. Or more precisely, given the cinematic prejudices of our age, Ondaatje was ushered into literary “significance” four years later when Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation by the same name won nine Oscars, two Golden Globes and six BAFTAs.

The skyrocketing effect Minghella’s English Patient had on Ondaatje’s career cannot be overstated. The film became compulsory viewing for the fashion set, stimulating the book’s sales in excess of two million copies worldwide. Both the book and the film, Ondaatje muses in a 1997 interview, acquired “a slightly sacred fog” in the public imagination.

Not surprisingly The English Patient also became a target for satire. Shortly after the film’s release a popular Seinfeld episode pilloried its worthiness, deeming people who didn’t like the movie – as Elaine didn’t – “flinty hearted” and “untrustworthy.” For her aesthetic insurrection Elaine is punished with a trip to Tunisia (the filming location of The English Patient) where she must live in a cave in order to save her job. Similarly in Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel, Damned (2011), hell is a place where The English Patient plays on eternal loop.

But before afflictions of fame, Ondaatje enjoyed the relative obscurity afforded a poet. Beginning with The Dainty Monsters in 1967, Ondaatje has published a total of eleven books of poetry, earning him the steady admiration of critics and a select but ardent trove of readers. In 1991 The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems assembled twenty-five years of Ondaatje’s greatest lyric poems in a tour de force: the title poem – “The Cinnamon Peeler” – which would surely stand among the best erotic love poems in English, as well as the much anthologized “To a Sad Daughter”, “White Dwarfs”, “Last Ink” and the extraordinary elegies for his mother and father, “Light” and “Letters & Other Worlds”, to name a small handful.

Ondaatje’s poetry – like his novels – often intersects with history. His second book, an imagistic suite of poems entitled The Man with Seven Toes, was inspired by Sidney Nolan’s Mrs Fraser series of paintings (1947-57) and Colin MacInnes’s brief account of Eliza Fraser’s fascinating but tragic life: shipwrecked off the Queensland coast in 1836, she was captured by aborigines and rescued by David Bracewell, a convict whom she betrays upon arriving in civilization. (Fraser is also the subject of Patrick White’s 1976 novel, A Fringe of Leaves.)

But Ondaatje’s career wasn’t underway until his second book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) – a grab bag of poems, prose, photographs and fictional news stories about sociopathic William “the Kid” Bonney and his gang of killers – fell into the wrong hands.

“The ex-Prime Minister [of Canada] John Diefenbaker was essentially out of a job, but he was a very cantankerous, wonderful old demagogue,” Ondaatje recalls in a 1997 interview. “He read the book, and he just hated it. So he called all the cameras in for a news conference, and he said, ‘This is disgusting!’ There was a picture of me on the front page of the newspaper.

“Only about eight people had bought the book, so it was quite sweet in some way for him to read it,” Ondaatje laughs. “I wasn’t so upset by him disliking the book, but it put me into a tailspin about being semi-known. Even on a small scale, it was difficult not to be self-conscious about being a writer.”

Ondaatje’s early style is challenging but the effects are stunning. Ever evading a master narrative, he tells stories through pieces of song, faded photographs, snatches of conversation. The pieces don’t always meet at the edges, sometimes they overlap, and it’s left to the reader to make the meaning and provide the glue. Ondaatje’s writing never seems to move in straight lines. As Pico Iyer says, “It circles and slants and echoes and returns.”

In 1970 Ondaatje published a monograph on fellow Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen. The two writers share more than an emotional climate – a moody often erotic reverence for violence and beauty – they feed from the same lexicon of wounds, scars, madness, dreams, broken glass, bones, chaos, and kindnesses. Ondaatje offers a description of Cohen’s künstlerroman, The Favorite Game, that could easily serve as an artistic statement for his own practice:

“It has the effectiveness of a long prose poem,” he writes, “with each scene emerging as a potent and enigmatic sketch, rather than a full blown detailed narrative. As in a poem, the silences and spaces, what is left unsaid, are essential to the mood of the book.”

Ondaatje’s novels would, in time, surpass his mentor’s in ambition, sophistication and reach. Alongside The Man with Seven Toes and Billy the Kid, his poetic novel-of-sorts, Coming Through Slaughter – a jazzy, syncopated riff on the short, mad life of legendary cornet player Buddy Bolden – all stand as amphibious texts bridging Ondaatje’s poetry and prose.

In 1982 Ondaatje’s masterwork in prose appeared in the form of a memoir, Running in the Family, which chronicles his return to Sri Lanka to grapple with the lives of his parents: his father, Mervyn Ondaatje, was a tea and rubber-plantation superintendent afflicted with alcoholism; and his mother, Doris Gratiaen, a part-time radical dancer inspired by Isadora Duncan. Both were prominent inhabitants of what once comprised Ceylon’s flamboyant if frivolous colonial society. Ondaatje writes:

I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’. In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.

Despite his earlier prose works, Ondaatje calls In the Skin of the Lion (1987) his “first novel”. It is also one of his best. Set in Toronto in the 1920s and 30s it imagines the lives of the Macedonian immigrant community who built the city’s bridges and waterworks. Ondaatje’s attentiveness to beauty, despair, and lives lost to official history builds a searing narrative even as its language and circular structures pull its telling towards poetry.

Increasingly since The English Patient, Ondaatje’s novels have become less experimental, the shifts in perspective less dramatic, the language more denotative. Anil’s Ghost (2000) follows the life of Anil Tissera, a native Sri Lankan and forensic anthropologist, working as a Human Rights investigator during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Divisadero (2007) divides its attention between a family in 1970s California and an author in pre-World War I southern France. Both novels are skillfully drawn but neither quite manage the magic of his earlier works.

And so it is with his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table. Ondaatje’s preoccupations and signatory motifs are present in abundance: dogs, thieves, acrobats, tapestries, wounds, dreams, jazz, and poetry. And his eye for the cinematic moment still pulls off a splendid stillness. Each morning of the 21-day passage, the boys wake at dawn to spy on an Australian roller skater who races the perimeter of the deck and showers fully clothed: “When she left we followed her footprints”, the narrator confesses, “which were already evaporating in the new sunlight as we approached them”.

A study of one’s childhood is not uncommon in late-career writers. Perhaps having lost much of his childhood to the desperate antics of his parents, Ondaatje is compelled to return to the puzzle of his early years. If Tolstoy, Conrad and Coetzee had not pre-empted him, he says, he would have called his novel Youth.

Yet in stripping back the sophistication of his narrator’s voice to accommodate a child’s perspective, Ondaatje has deprived The Cat’s Table of the force of language that largely carried his earlier works. And in attempting a more straightforward telling, he has exposed his inherent weaknesses with narrative. One wishes he’d held his nerve and stuck to his earlier rhythms that, while difficult, were dazzling.

Ondaatje admits he doesn’t remember the day in 1954 that he arrived as an unaccompanied minor in the port of London. In his novel, he imagines Michael is met by his mother but he’s not sure he will recognize her face. He is wearing his first pair of long trousers, socks, and a thin cotton shirt. “You must be cold, Michael,” his mother says, pulling him to her. He can see part of the world to the side of her, the figures rushing past barely aware of him in his mother’s arms, the borrowed suitcase with all he owned beside him.

A reluctant guest or not, Ondaatje has earned his place at the Captain’s table – if not for this novel alone, but for what came before it, and for what we hope might follow.

Originally published under the title ‘The Cat’s Table’. Rev. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Australian Literary Review (October 2011): 23.

Men behaving badly: mel gibson and the beaver

Review of The Beaver directed by Jodi Foster and a profile of lead actor Mel Gibson

Everybody’s heard that Lord Byron was mad, bad and dangerous to know. But perhaps it’s not so well advertised that Caravaggio killed his opponent after a game of tennis by stabbing him through the femoral artery in a bungled castration attempt. Or that Bernini, on suspecting his mistress was having an affair with his brother, dispatched a bravo to slash her face to ribbons, then pulped his brother himself. Or that Naked Lunch author William Burroughs aimed his handgun at a water tumbler balanced on his wife’s head in a drugged-up game of William Tell and shot her in the face.

Mel GibsonEverybody’s heard that Lord Byron was mad, bad and dangerous to know. But perhaps it’s not so well advertised that Caravaggio killed his opponent after a game of tennis by stabbing him through the femoral artery in a bungled castration attempt. Or that Bernini, on suspecting his mistress was having an affair with his brother, dispatched a bravo to slash her face to ribbons, then pulped his brother himself. Or that Naked Lunch author William Burroughs aimed his handgun at a water tumbler balanced on his wife’s head in a drugged-up game of William Tell and shot her in the face. Or that Picasso beat his mistress Dora Maar into unconsciousness and ground his lit cigarette into the cheek of his other mistress — Paloma’s mother, Francoise Gilot — when she refused to shack up with him.

Ok, so most people know Picasso was a monster. But the diabolical behaviour of countless celebrated artists is enough to make the recent escapades of Lindsay Lohan look like a comedy of manners. And Mel Gibson’s improprieties, by comparison, have him looking less like Cerberus and more like your garden-variety jerk. But while Caravaggio et al rest peacefully in the grave, their oeuvre elegantly segregated from their wicked lives, Gibson and co are being marched out of Hollywood. Perhaps LA is not a den of immorality after all.

Lohan is easy to dismiss, and if I knew more about her I would. But Gibson is a powerbroker. Despite his haggard appearance of late he’s an A-list actor, a two-time Academy Award winning director, a successful screenwriter, and president of Icon productions. Disposal would never be simple. But there was another problem. Before he was to be dishonorably discharged, Gibson and Jodie Foster (as director and co-star) made a little movie with what a reviewer in the Guardian thoughtfully described as a “giggly” title: The Beaver.

It must be said that Foster is terribly likeable and, it would seem, almost unanimously respected, but the films she has directed to date – Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1995) – are a little bit twee. And that said, The Beaver’s premise– a man suffering from depression starts communicating to his family and work colleagues exclusively through a beaver hand-puppet – doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. So why are so many critics agreeing with the puppet when it says to Gibson: “I’m here to save your goddamn life”?

It’s a difficult question to answer because the final (here’s hoping) installment in Gibson’s charade as a train wreck has necessitated The Beaver remain in “a holding pattern” since filming wrapped in 2009. But in March 2011, the SXSW festival in Austin held an advanced screening with Jodie Foster and award-winning screenwriter Kyle Killen in attendance. Gibson took a hall pass due to a prior engagement at the LA Airport Court, where he pled no contest to misdemeanour battery of his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. (Incidentally Lohan appeared at the same Court the day before for her alleged jewelry-theft hearing.)

But the early Beaver reviews are glowing. “The moments between Walter and the beaver are genuine, heartfelt and contain some of the best acting Gibson has ever done,” as one critic enthused. But there’s something strange about the buzz surrounding The Beaver. Everyone’s running the same headline: “Can The Beaver Redeem Mel Gibson?” In fact Google returns over 26,000 hits for the question in direct quotes. To redeem is the American dream, but can a movie about a puppet really make you feel fuzzy about someone who’s just knocked in your front teeth? Or perhaps it’s just marketing elves at Summit clocking overtime.

Gibson’s fall from grace goes back to July 2006 when he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol (he blew in at 0.12%) after being stopped for speeding in Malibu. Initially he was cooperative but became belligerent when handcuffed: “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” he told the arresting officer; at the police station he reportedly asked a female officer, “What are you looking at, sugar-tits?” Within hours, a four-page police report was leaked to the entertainment website TMZ.com. It quickly went viral. Gibson issued a general apology for his dangerous behaviour and a second apology addressed to the Jewish community for his “vitriolic and harmful words … blurted out in a moment of insanity.” He’s not an anti-Semite, he insisted. In a 2009 interview, however, Gibson denied using the term “sugar-tits” (he attributed it to the arresting officer) but wished he had coined it because it is funny.

In the end Gibson pled no contest for misdemeanour drunken driving. He was fined, had his license restricted, and was to attend an alcohol-abuse program and AA meetings for a year. While his friends loaned their public support — Patrick Swayze, Jodie Foster, and Robert Downy Jr among them — the head of Sony called for an industry boycott of Gibson, which was supported with hawkish denouncements from Endeavor, MCA and other heavy hitters.

But Gibson wasn’t finished. In May 2009 he divulged onthe Tonight Show with Jay Leno that he’d done “a hatchet job” on his 30-year marriage to Robyn Gibson and that Grigorieva, whom he’d met on the set of Edge of Darkness (2010), was pregnant with his eighth child. Gibson was clearly besotted with the Russian musician cum model. “My dark eyed beautiful little communist,” he dubbed her in text messages she would later submit to the family court to substantiate his unstable personality. “You conquered the monster in me with your love emanating from your truly beautiful heart and soul,” he slavered. Gibson extended the Cold War metaphor by calling himself her “capitalist pig”, presciently, perhaps, because the iron curtain was about to fall on their relationship.

According to Grigorieva, on 6 January 2011 Gibson punched her, choked her, and waved a gun at her while she was holding their two-month-old baby. The accusation, which came six months after the blowout, followed the leaking of seven expletive-laced audiotapes to RadarOnline.com. Among other things, Gibson threatens to burn down the house and bury Grigorieva in the rose garden. He calls her a bitch, cunt, whore, slut, gold digger, and berates her for falling asleep before “blowing him”. Radar also posted photographs of her with broken veneers. Gibson admitted that he slapped Grigorieva to stop her shaking Lucia, but he didn’t punch her. And he didn’t wave a gun, he said.

This time Hollywood was not swift to act. It wasn’t until Gibson got racial — “You look like a fucking bitch in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault” — that he was dumped by the William Morris Agency. Apparently race trumps gender in Hollywood.

Why Grigorieva waited six months to file charges is unclear. Gibson’s legal team says it was because she was busy trying to extort their client for $15 million. She claims she was trying to work out their differences. In an interview on Larry King Live in November 2010 Grigorieva elaborates: “I stayed for a little bit too long,” she says. “I gave him [a] last chance. He asked me for the last chance. He begged. He cried. He cried on his knees. What am I supposed to do?”

What indeed. Grigorieva was up against an actor. Not any old actor, but one of the all-time great warrior actors. Mad Max, Fletcher Christian, Sgt Riggs, Porter, and William Wallace all rolled into one. Gibson owns these roles because he understands these men. He is one of them. His first instinct, he explains in a documentary on the making of Hamlet (1990), is to “scream and roar and yell”. He’s not good at compromising when people don’t see things his way: “I’ll let it brew, let it brew,” he says, “and try and figure out a way around it. And then when it doesn’t I just go up and choke them”. It’s a fault, he concedes.

Gibson is a master of unhinged aggression. Forever spoiling for a fight, he’s spent more screen time in the arms of men than women. He may not be sensitive but he is surprisingly emotional.

In fact, he’s a real crier. Gibson came of age as an actor in the 1980s when masculinity was under review. Men were being told they should cry, and Gibson showed them how to do it … and still be a badass. He turns on the tears in Lethal Weapon (1987), Hamlet (1990), Braveheart (1995), Ransom (1996), The Patriot (2000), We Were Soldiers (2002), and Signs (2002) and both men and women come unstuck.

Grigorieva’s mistake was to fall, like Gibson’s audiences do, for his tears. But it wasn’t her only mistake. In the audiotapes she commits the ultimate crime for a woman: she fails to cry. Worse, in the photographs documenting her broken veneers, she’s smiling. Grigorieva is unruffled in the face of Gibson’s fury, and his fans don’t like it. While Gibson was publicly flogged for his racist remarks, on the ‘woman issue’ the masses are aggressively backing Team Mel.

Besides sexism, fans might side with Gibson because he’s always getting bashed. Bruises and lacerations are central to his image, and pain buys him admiration, sympathy, and sex appeal. The more masochistic, the more manly. Pain is the whole point of Payback (1999) in which Gibson’s Porter is shot in the back, run over by a car, and beaten up by the mob, a Chinese gang, and the police. At Gibson’s suggestion Porter’s toes were smashed with a sledgehammer. Compared to Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, and Johnny Depp who are always kicking the bucket, Gibson rarely dies on film (only four times in more than 40 movies). He does, however, hold the record for number of tortures.

Gibson’s characters are not only in danger from others, they’re a danger to themselves. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs sticks a gun in his mouth and contemplates pulling the trigger. “Riggs was suicidal,” director Richard Donner says, “Mel just fit the mode perfectly.” Donner wasn’t alone in thinking so. Franco Zeffirelli saw it and knew he’d found his Hamlet. Gibson’s simpatico with his suicidal characters is born of experience. In a 2004 interview Gibson confessed he’d recently “got to a very desperate place. Very desperate. Kind of jump-out-of-a-window kind of desperate. And I didn’t want to hang around here,” he said. “And I just hit my knees.”

And so this is where we find Walter Black at the opening of The Beaver: floating in a pool, arms outstretched, numb with self-loathing, his life feeling like it’s ended. Originally Steve Carrel, then Jim Carrey was slated to play the lead, but Walter is a Gibson role. Despite its quirky premise The Beaver is not a comedy, Foster insists. Turn by turn the story gets darker and more violent until Gibson renders Walter’s complete emotional collapse in a performance that is leaving critics stunned.

Caravaggio’s bad behaviour is a footnote to his work; for Gibson it’s the headline. How an artist can come back from disgrace in a society almost entirely restructured by technology is anybody’s guess. Words are no longer ephemeral, but orchestral: replayed on 24-hour news, transcribed, extracted, analysed, and satirised in video mash-ups and comic skits. The question is not whether we will forgive Gibson the things he’s said and done, but whether we – or he for that matter – will ever be allowed to forget.

First published under the title “Jury Still Out for Mad Mel” in Australian Literary Review (May 2011): 23.

Robert hass: blackberries for a black hat dancer

First published in Blue Dog: Australian Poetry

“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.

robert hassOnly Connect – EM Forster

“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,

And Charlie,
laughing wonderfully,
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