On Robert Hass’s “Faint Music”

by Rodney Jones
Like many Robert Hass poems, “Faint Music” is a meditative pool fed by numerous tributaries—story, song, anecdote, allusion, deduction, induction, both the Buddhist koan and the Christian parable. These streams are not simply aesthetic measures, but intimate forms of a natural mental behavior which Hass crafts with such relish that his language bears the redemptive quality of bodily sentience. All this in a poem of dismaying thematic and experiential particulars—a lover’s infidelity followed by a suicide attempt; masculine egotism, masculine possessiveness; “[b]ees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash,” as Hass puts it.

“Faint Music” bares the sexual vulnerability of men without caricature, and that is certainly welcome, given the violence with which such vulnerability is often expressed in America. But while the image of Hass’s wronged lover rifling through his beloved’s underthings may reveal the plutonium at the core of male jealousy, the sustaining grace of the poem is its comprehensive artifice, its lucidity of both tone and structure, and its articulation of particulars.

I have long admired Hass’s ability to make one thing stand out from others in a poem: a rusty nail added to the soup; the boy who tells the other kids they can play at his house because his mother is dead; and, in “Faint Music,” the liberating anecdote of the wronged lover tucked in a bridge girder—he is about to jump, but then, for no reason, thinks of seafood and wonders why there is no “landfood.” Such instances are sentinels to Hass’s more timeless observations and become part of a reader’s ongoing mind, much as a Frank Lloyd Wright house becomes part of its environment.

More admirable, though, than any part of a Hass poem is the integrity of the whole. Once I thought him remarkable for having achieved a language of such fluent erotic sublimation that it seemed to me some heroic animal victory over institutionalese. Now what strikes me more are his disciplined respect for the sources of his art and his pursuit of sanity and gentleness

Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.

When everything broken is broken,
and everything dead is dead,
and the hero has looked into the mirror with complete contempt,
and the heroine has studied her face and its defects
remorselessly, and the pain they thought might,
as a token of their earnestness, release them from themselves
has lost its novelty and not released them,
and they have begun to think, kindly and distantly,
watching the others go about their days—
likes and dislikes, reasons, habits, fears—
that self-love is the one weedy stalk
of every human blossoming, and understood,
therefore, why they had been, all their lives,
in such a fury to defend it, and that no one—
except some almost inconceivable saint in his pool
of poverty and silence—can escape this violent, automatic
life’s companion ever, maybe then, ordinary light,
faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears.

As in the story a friend told once about the time
he tried to kill himself. His girl had left him.
Bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.
He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge,
the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon.
And in the salt air he thought about the word “seafood,”
that there was something faintly ridiculous about it.
No one said “landfood.” He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch
he’d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass,
scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp
along the coast—and he realized that the reason for the word
was crabs, or mussels, clams. Otherwise
the restaurants could just put “fish” up on their signs,
and when he woke—he’d slept for hours, curled up
on the girder like a child—the sun was going down
and he felt a little better, and afraid. He put on the jacket
he’d used for a pillow, climbed over the railing
carefully, and drove home to an empty house.

There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties
hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed.
A faint russet in the crotch that made him sick
with rage and grief. He knew more or less
where she was. A flat somewhere on Russian Hill.
They’d have just finished making love. She’d have tears
in her eyes and touch his jawbone gratefully. “God,”
she’d say, “you are so good for me.” Winking lights,
a foggy view downhill toward the harbor and the bay.
“You’re sad,” he’d say. “Yes.” “Thinking about Nick?”
“Yes,” she’d say and cry. “I tried so hard,” sobbing now,
“I really tried so hard.” And then he’d hold her for a while—
Guatemalan weavings from his fieldwork on the wall—
and then they’d fuck again, and she would cry some more,
and go to sleep.
And he, he would play that scene
once only, once and a half, and tell himself
that he was going to carry it for a very long time
and that there was nothing he could do
but carry it. He went out onto the porch, and listened
to the forest in the summer dark, madrone bark
cracking and curling as the cold came up.

It’s not the story though, not the friend
leaning toward you, saying “And then I realized—,”
which is the part of stories one never quite believes.
I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.
And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—
First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.

Robert Hass, "Faint Music" from Sun Under Wood. Copyright 1996 by Robert Hass. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
Originally Published: October 12, 2006


On June 3, 2007 at 6:02pm April Pinsonneault wrote:
This is not the first time the sea has brought the protagonist of a Robert Hass poem back to his senses. One is reminded of “In Winter?, from Field Guide (Hass, 1973) when an estranged husband wakes to the havoc raccoons have reeked by spilling garbage all over the lawn. He smells clams and is calmed.

The “faint music? is also reminiscent of Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West?: There never was a world for her except the world in which she sang and singing made.? The pain we feel is the sole thread of our existence, the golden thread which binds us and which later becomes our grace...the grace behind the furies. Inextricably this pain and grace becomes our song or our mêlée. In Emily Dickinson, “After Great Pain?, “This is the hour remembered, if out lived, the way freezing persons recollect the snow, first the chill, than the stupor, then the letting go.? The “faint music? in Robert Hass’s poem is equivalent to the letting go stage which is disembodied...songs are disembodied, egoless.

How to wrap up all of this fancy? The sea itself is the collective unconscious and the sea food, the stuff from the sea, is the reptilian part of the mind as in the Tarot card “The Moon?. The primal self is reminded that the path is to the sun or to a whole identity...?land food?. Underneath it all, as underneath the sea, there is the impulsive existence of crustaceans. The association between the collective unconscious, the ignorance of existence and ones own personal ignorance is solacing. Ultimately, “Faint Music? is a funny poem because it juxtaposes the randomness of action with the random play of thought.

On July 16, 2007 at 11:54am Deborah L. Zike wrote:
I've read many of Robert Hass's poems and found this to be an excellent poem, but somehow it lacks the warmth of "Meditation at Langunaitus." "Meditation" was the poem I studied carefully at the Writers' Workshop with the poet Stanley Plumly.
I found the reference to the woman's underwear to be a trifle distasteful--perhaps an image borrowed from his past. Also the friend who wanted to jump was also a borrowed experience. I guess I didn't see the humor of it and hardly read Robert Hass's poems for humor.

On July 18, 2007 at 9:00pm April Pinsonneault wrote:
Hello Deborah Zike,

Don't you find it funny that a man contmplating suicide is distracted by an inner dialouge on seafood? I love that!
I appreciate your comment; however, this poem is largely serious and I was sobered to think I might be mistaken to find humor in it.

April Pinsonneault

On July 19, 2007 at 10:28am The M. Scientist wrote:
Hass's greatest poem. It's unfortunate "Meditation . . ." is still the go-to poem when discussing Hass. While sublime, it never approaches the emotional and structural perfection of "Faint Music." Anyone who knows Hass or has heard him read would call him many words, though "distasteful" would never be one. It's a pleasure to see this work stoke a discussion. Everyone could benefit from a little more Hass.

On October 15, 2007 at 6:33pm Erik Yates wrote:
A poem about grace - don't we all need to

write, and keep writing, these sorts of poems?

True, those "inconceivable saints" among us

may be exempt, but for those of us not willing

to let go into such dispassion, grace and

soulfulness must lead the way.

I love the poem. I don't read enough anymore

to echo April's interpretation, but I admire and

appreciate it very much, even while it reminds

me of why I never could do grad school. The

humor gets me every time. As far as the

panties go, I agree to some extent with

Deborah, and find myself confused as to why

they are there. Nonetheless, the image of

them makes me sick to my stomach, and

thereby gets me deeper into the poem.

The rage that is there, the abohrrently

metrosexual Guatemalan art blown to bits by

the obligatory f-bomb, is a rage we've all felt in

one way or another. It's good to see it in black

and white, even while it feels exploitative. And

it's better still to have it followed by the singing

of the last stanza, the grace that comes, as it

must, at the end of a difficult poem.

On February 23, 2009 at 4:12am Diego Azurdia wrote:
I read this poem and it made me weep. I read the review and it reminded me of why I weeped.

Please, dont mess around with poetry, dont use pseudo eloquent words to talk about poetry. Just look at how you just raped the tender voice of a gorgeous poem:

“Faint Music” bares the sexual vulnerability of men without caricature, and that is certainly welcome, given the violence with which such vulnerability is often expressed in America. But while the image of Hass’s wronged lover rifling through his beloved’s underthings may reveal the plutonium at the core of male jealousy.

Self-love; please, re-read the poem without banners, you'll listen to faint music.

On April 20, 2009 at 10:53pm April Pinsonneault wrote:
Hello Diego,

You make a really point.

Thank you. April

On June 18, 2009 at 1:47am Niel Rosenthalis wrote:
Hi April Pinsonneault,

You hit the nail right on the head--the first time I read this poem, I immediately thought of both "Idea of Order at Key West" and Dickinson's "After Great Pain..."

See the poem "Jatun Sacha" (I may have mispelled that) from the same collection, and you REALLY get a strong sense of "The Idea of Order at Key West."
I love how we can reinterpret and let inspiration from older poems shine through our newer poems. In that way, no truly great poem ever really dies.

Niel Rosenthalis
Ursinus College, class of 2012

On August 8, 2009 at 11:42pm April Pinsonneault wrote:
Hi Niel,

I haven't been back to this discussion board since 4/20/09.
There are so many ways to look at things and I appreciate your thoughts which echo some of my own. Deborah makes a good really hear the poem perhaps isolating the rythms and language immerse us fully; but then, through the voice and in the submersion we hear the collective unconcious, and one's own heart burbling with commentary,associations, identifying allusions (and visa/versa:sometimes those things first).
Perhaps by weaving together our associations with other people's poems some ownership occurs. Ultimately, I believe that poems, stories and songs belong to the people who read them.
A wonderful discussion has ensued: the common thread a love for poetry. I have not read Jatun Sacha. Or is this the Japanese poet Sacha? I will aquaint or reaquaint myself with the poet whichever the case may be. Thank-you for your lead.
Hope you make it back to the board and good luck in your studies.

April Pinsonneault

On August 10, 2009 at 2:21am April Pinsonneault wrote:
Oh... I get it. "Jatun Sacha" is the name of a poem by Robert Hass. It is in the collection Sun Under Wood. I am still looking for the poem. Guess I will have to go to Borders.

On May 5, 2011 at 2:31am I. Newhart wrote:
This is the poem that saved my life.

I hesitate to even comment on it in such an obscene rostrum as a
web forum, but I feel compelled to speak up. In short, I heard Mr.
Hass read this poem at the Scottish Rite Theater (here in Austin, TX)
over a decade ago on a night that I was absolutely positive would be
my last. I was at an absolutely helpless point in my life, having
severely broken my back in a fall four months earlier, coupled with an
intense breakup of a three-year relationship. Completely alone and
drowning in immobility and morphine, I had given up. Too scared of
what the night might bring, I opened the paper for any place else to
be, and that's when I saw that Mr. Hass, poet-laureate, was giving a
free reading in less than an hour's time. It was a whim. It was a
desperate flailing. I called a cab, and 90 minutes later I heard the
words "once and a half" ring through every broken acre of my being.
Grace isn't about being saved by hope and reassurance. It's about
finding a kindred sorrow in your darkest hour; a hand given but not
seen. Fast-forward ten years later, and I have learned to walk again.
I'm happily married teach poetry to 1st and 2nd graders in high-risk
schools who churn out verse that steamrolls anything I encountered in
the MFA world. Poetry still matters because there are those out there
in unknowing need of it. I have Deborah's unfortunate comment to
thank for spurring my defense of "Faint Music." Enough said.

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 Rodney  Jones


Rodney Jones was born in 1950 in rural Alabama. He has described his childhood and youth as “very much like being a part of another age. Our community still did not have electricity until I was 5 or 6 years old.” His poetry frequently celebrates the relationships and events of the small, agrarian community he was born into, as well as preserves the kinds of vernacular speech he grew up hearing. Jones has noted of his youth in . . .

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