Essay

On Robert Hass’s “A Supple Wreath of Myrtle”

by Brenda Hillman
I have been asked to write a few sentences about a “favorite Robert Hass poem”—quite a difficult task. I have to disclose that Bob is my husband. I have many favorite Robert Hass poems. He's a poet who brings all contemporary poetic elements together—a conversational quality of heart from Romantic poetry, Whitman’s visionary line, and the quick intellectual and imagistic shifts of Modernism. His poetry has an ineffable wisdom about human life that is as necessary as water.

I’ve been thinking for a few weeks about “A Supple Wreath of Myrtle,” which will appear in his new book of poems next year. The piece is short, only 12 lines long; a poem of this length, if it is good, has to be a model of economy. The lightly ironic title offers an aromatic love-branch, weaving five appealing words in three stresses. Written in an apparently realistic mode, this piece presents the great philosopher Nietzsche in various states of diminishment at the end of his life.

The narration is quite compressed, with a bemused, intimate tone yet also with detachment; it shifts from describing Nietzsche’s room to what he might be thinking in his room to what the cedar tree looks like outside his window, in a way that gives the impression of something surreal or of a photograph in which several types of reality are superimposed. The poem is the depiction of an imagined scene, a collision of types of imagination: an enactment of the disappointments and terrible sufferings of human life in relation to its central sweetness and pleasures.

The poet chooses the philosopher as a vehicle for this because “poor Nietzsche’’ invested his energies in making models of heroic existentialist philosophy in which men can triumph, through the force of their own souls, over the absurdity of their human condition. The irony of the poem has both acceptance and gentleness; Nietzsche’s vanities and preferences for Bizet—a composer whose varied compositions included light opera—are set against inescapable historical facts that are not eased by art, philosophy, or other symbolic modes.

The poem suggests that the daily and the heroic are always intertwined; the philosopher who observed that mankind goes forth in the face of meaninglessness is shown to be ill and dependent, yet enjoying his sausages and music anyway. The ghostly image of the flouncing and defiant operatic protagonist (maybe Bizet’s Carmen) comes in and out. The word “luxuriant” is itself luxuriant, with its four syllables, and how comic the image of the moustache is.

The poem is one to live with; it captures something very powerful about human life, about the brevity of conviction, and about the individual’s relationship to his own story, to history in general, to reputation. How felicitous that the poet ends with the word “Bizet,” a strange word that sounds dashing and energetic and has a flourish. I am grateful for this poem, and for all of Robert Hass’s work.

Poor Nietzsche in Turin, eating sausage his mother
Mails to him from Basel. A rented room,
A small square window framing August clouds
Above the mountain. Brooding on the form
Of things: the dangling spur
Of an Alpine columbine, winter-tortured trunks
Of cedar in the summer sun, the warp in the aspen’s trunk
Where it torqued up through the snowpack.

“Every where the wasteland grows; woe
To him whose wasteland is within.”

Dying of syphilis. Trimming a luxuriant mustache.
In love with the opera of Bizet.



Robert Hass, "A Supple Wreath of Myrtle" from the forthcoming Time and Materials. Copyright 2006 by Robert Hass. Used by permission of the author.
Originally Published: October 12, 2006

COMMENTS (7)

On February 26, 2007 at 11:11am Karen wrote:
So sad ... sad ... sad - I want to turn away, but then the mother in me wants to run over and give this dying man a warm embrace.

On March 28, 2007 at 6:26pm marybeth groves wrote:
The Lesson is always learned in the end:

what a pitiful wasteland was his own soul, he who was the cause of "spreading the wasteland" by infecting the culture against Truth.

And so binded was he to the overwhelming proof of the LIVING GOD, that he couldn't see it, though he was shrouded with it at TURIN!

On October 27, 2007 at 3:46pm Robert wrote:
I am delighted to see that Brenda Hillman picked this as one of her favorite poems by Robert Hass, because it's one that I would pick and then would feel lonely because surely no one else would pick this one. I love it from beginning (the complicated tone (tender chutzpah?) of "Poor Nietzsche" instead of just "Nietzsche in Turin") to end. I agree it's wonderful it ends with "Bizet." It would be a very different poem if it ended with "mustache" or "syphilis"!

On May 8, 2008 at 10:08am Carin wrote:
i need a poem for my health class about

syphilis!

On May 8, 2008 at 10:09am Carin wrote:
someone write one and leave it on this

page and i will check it out! thank you

always carin

On September 24, 2008 at 11:49am Cameron wrote:
eating sausage his mother

now that's a line break

On February 2, 2010 at 6:30am john tatum wrote:
I think it also says something about vanity, especially at the end...perhaps part of the sadness is the lostness of a man in love with the vanity of his own philosophy...juxtaposed with the reality of God's son...and His historical proof that has been largely discounted there in Turin.

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 Brenda  Hillman

Biography

One of contemporary poetry’s most eclectic and formally innovative writers, Brenda Hillman is known for poems that draw on elements of found texts and document, personal meditation, observation, and literary theory. Often described as “sensuous” and “luminescent,” Hillman’s poetry investigates and pushes at the possibilities of form and voice, while remaining grounded in topics such as geology, the environment, politics, family, . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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