Whatever you choose to call that thing which mere palaver erodes—soul, psyche, self, tranquility, or simply meaning—“Meditation at Lagunitas” is one of the poems that can save you. The poet here is sick of words used as rhetoric, where “talking this way, everything dissolves,” watered down from passionate feeling, memory, desire, the senses.
In the second half of the poem, Robert Hass translates the word “blackberry” from rational to ritual. This begins in his recollection of a woman, which leads back to childhood and its specifics such as “pumpkinseed,” along with a powerful, almost talismanic sense of the immediacy of words to us as children.
From this return to childhood comes an inevitable casting out again into adulthood and its definitions: “It hardly had to do with her. Longing, we say, because desire has to do with endless distances.” The real discovery here is in how strangely our shared separateness also connects us.
The next turn, to the flesh-and-blood woman, in which he “remembers so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,” brings us far toward the bond between word and flesh, just as surely as any more traditional rite. The sacrament at hand—in your hand—is the act of the poem itself, and you complete the ceremony by reading it.
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. 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 other 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.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas” from Praise. Copyright 1979 by Robert Hass. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.