A small confession: I am probably not qualified to write this review. I’d never heard of Robert Hass – the U.S. poet laureate from the year 1995 to 1997 – until a few weeks ago, when I learned he was coming to campus. In fact, as I sat on Monday evening in the crowded space of the Adams Memorial Theatre, waiting for the poet to appear, I realized I’d been misspelling his name.
So I am probably not the person who should be writing this piece, who should be telling you what to think of what you heard on Monday night or, maybe, what you missed. But I am that person, so for what it’s worth, here’s my opinion: I simply loved it.
Hass began the night by reading a poem about dreams, which, he said, in preface to the piece, all budding writers ought to pay attention to. And then he began to read, to describe a series of images, some fantastical, some almost ordinary, all punctuated by a small and steadying refrain. “In the dream.” In the dream, an eyeball popped out of someone’s head and became a moon. In the dream, the children’s day was Tuesday. I was enthralled, fascinated, by the world that was being crafted before me, painted before my very eyes.
Most of the poems Hass read were new ones, and a number of them were part of a single project that began, the poet said, when he started to think about death, about how and when people die. The series explores loss at various points in the life span. The first poem in the series that Hass read was titled, “Death in Infancy,” and it had an almost whisper-like sadness to it, befitting the occurrence it documents, which is so raw, so simply, wholly sad, that it is, as the poem states, “Almost as if one should not speak of it.”
I found I could not look away during this piece, could not disengage my mind from these words. It seemed to me that Hass’ voice thickened in the middle point of the poem, as though he, too, had been captivated by the grief of which he spoke.
The rest of the poems in the series transfixed me, as well. These pieces were beautiful and powerful, placed the marvelous in the midst of the mournful, and vice versa. We are introduced to the small son of Hass’ friend who has a shock of blond hair and a hole in his heart (although this is not precisely what killed him). We hear of the boy who sat in Hass’ class until the day he didn’t, whose last literature paper concerned the works of Emily Dickinson. We hear of the quick rippling of Aspen leaves and of new tennis shoes. We hear of the Pacific Ocean in which a college friend died and the thirty-something half-marathon runner whose wife was seven months pregnant when he departed this life.
The last poem in this set that Hass reads – although not the final piece he has written for the series – is called “A Song or Dirge for Those Who Die in Their Thirties.” Again and again, lyric-like, the same lines repeat, “There’s a green wind on the pond; It’s summer on the pond.” Everything is growing, bright, alive, and between these things, there’s death.
The magic of Hass’ poems, I think, stems from the fact that they are both incredibly, wondrously beautiful and, at the same time, so very real, so very familiar. There are moments during the reading when I have the sense that the poet has described something I’ve felt and thought but could never have put into words. “In the twenties, a friend is a world,” Hass says, and I think – why, yes. He describes jogging under “God’s anvil of the heat of mid-July,” and I recall running through the thick humidity of the August air outside my grandmother’s house in Houston.
Likewise, when Hass speaks of Buffalo, where he used to teach, of its art museum, the Albright-Knox, where he used to work, I am flung, for a second, back into my home city, back to the art museum in which I, too, have stood, looking at the works of the abstract expressionists. This connection is, of course, simple coincidence, but it is also a fitting one. Hass’ poetry seems to possess the ability to tell the story of the places we have been, the things we have seen.
After he reads the series of reflections upon death, Hass changes his subject. He reads a few poems on nature – he likes to describe the weather of his home state of California, he says, because too many American poets focus on the climactic patterns of the Northeast. He reads a poem about his Polish friend, a fellow poet, in which the two have a dispute about the work of the artist Amedeo Modigliani.
There is a storytelling-like quality to the way Hass reads. He pauses, a few times, to give brief interludes – once, to ask if there any painters present that happen to know how to pronounce, “Alizarin.” There are a few that do. “Alizarin,” he says, in echo, and reads on, continues to speak his words, to tell his stories. As a listener, there’s no way to doubt his authenticity. His work is real and honest and powerful. And it’s beautiful. It’s very beautiful. Hours later, I am still stuck within his images.
“The stars should have exchanged witticisms in a language unintelligible to us … but glittering,” he says in one of the last poems.
If I close my eyes, I see those supposed-to-be speaking stars, sparkling. Glittering.