The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, by Robert Hass. Ecco. $34.99.
The first line of Robert Hass’s first collection, Field Guide, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973, is “I won’t say much for the sea.” This offhand repurposing of idiom, funny and insightful, is characteristic of his poems—of course he goes on to say a million things for and about the sea. Field Guide was acclaimed, as each succeeding book would be, for Hass’s facility in translating into poems what is ridiculously referred to as the “natural world.” In the first three poems alone, we find: steelhead, mushrooms, apricots, gulls, sea cucumbers, slugs, a walnut tree, ironwood, waxwings, pyracantha, cliffs, bluffs, artichokes, a salt creek, owl’s clover, lupine, berries, hawthorns, laurels, “clams, abalones, cockles, chitons, crabs,” salmon, swamp grass, and a skunk. The preoccupation with nonhuman life is inextricable from a compulsive onomamania: “Earth-wet, slithery, / we drifted toward the names of things”; “I recite the hard/explosive names of birds: / egret, killdeer, bittern, tern.” This impulse is explained, sort of, in “Maps”:
Of all the laws
that bind us to the past
the names of things are
When Hass’s pintails and blue-winged teals are lined up in a row, the deftness of his observations almost rivals that of the haiku masters he has so memorably translated: in a restaurant’s tank, “coppery lobsters scuttling over lobsters.” But as the above verse suggests, Hass is also given to pedantic soothsaying, telling the reader how it is in tones that suggest he is just slightly winded from having jogged down the slopes of Parnassus. The poetry takes on the tenor of the lecture hall, the quality of prose statement: Of all the laws that bind us to the past, the names of things are stubbornest. Is this true? Is it even meaningful?
This register contributes to the dewy piety that makes it impossible to read many Hass poems with a straight face. The metaphor “jump the shark” has itself long since jumped the shark, but in its spirit I’d like to propose a new phrase to describe the moment when a poem goes hilariously off the rails. This phrase is “hating the cunt,” and I take it from Field Guide’s “In Weather”:
Then the heavy cock wields,
rises, spits seed
at random and the man
and perfected in the empty dark.
His god is a thrust of infinite desire
beyond the tame musk
of companionable holes.
It descends to women occasionally
with contempt and languid tenderness.
I tried to hate my wife’s cunt,
the sweet place where I rooted
When discussing a poem in which the poet is so enamored of himself and his sincerity that he is rendered quite tone-deaf to the comic pseudo-profundity of his lines, one might say something like, “The third stanza really hates the cunt.” In the next section of the same poem, Hass is lying in bed listening to the mating cries of owls:
Slowly at first, I
made a solemn face
and tried the almost human wail
of owls, ecstatic
in the winter trees, twoo, twoo.
I drew long breaths.
My wife stirred in our bed.
Joy seized me.
So let’s see: you’re already trying to hate your wife’s, er, companionable hole, now she has to put up with you making owl noises in the middle of the night? Let the woman sleep!
Like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Sharon Olds—in their different ways—Hass has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery. Unlike those poets, Hass has real talent. The Apple Trees at Olema is a frustrating blend of banality and brilliance. The second volume, Praise, now reads as a primer in late-seventies period style, the kind of laid-back beach koans that led people to believe Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear” was a good poem. There are more berries, more naming of flowers, more embarrassingly tin-eared warbling in the demotic:
It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman
he fucks in the ass underneath the stars
because it is summer and they are full of longing
and sick of birth. They burn coolly
like phosphorous, and the thing need be done
—From “Against Botticelli”
Does ass fucking really require such a high-minded justification? Upon being told someone is fucking someone else in the ass, has anyone ever responded, “What! Why?” I regret to inform the reader that Hass goes on to compare this sex act to the sacking of Troy.
Hass’s most famous poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” also succumbs to his fatal need to elevate everything to the phosphorescent plane of longing. It begins vividly by tweaking a worn catchphrase into literality:
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.
Here, the poet is arguing against the deadening tendency to force ordinary particulars into luminosity. A woodpecker is allowed to be a woodpecker, and those who would derive allegory from its presence are seduced by intellectual fashion. Within a few lines, Hass is remembering “a woman / I made love to”: “I felt a violent wonder at her presence / like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river / with its island willows.” He’s savvy, he knows that “It hardly had to do with her.” But by the end of the poem, which everyone knows—“Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings, / saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry”—you begin to realize that Hass’s particulars are often subsumed into the general because he thinks that merely intoning the names of things can replace the hard work of description. A brief poem in Field Guide ends:
Cat sleeps in the windowgleam,
On the oak table
filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
slices of green pepper
on a bone-white dish.
This isn’t poetry, it’s a list of stuff in Hass’s kitchen. If Jack Spicer’s perfect poem had an infinitely small vocabulary, Hass’s contains only the words “ripe blackberries.” (This is, in fact, the entirety of the twelfth section of “The Beginning of September.”)
But although the preciousness remains an irritant—“the floribunda are / heavy with the richness and sadness of Europe”—in the three books that follow Praise Hass is often charmingly aware of, and thus able to subvert, his own windy inclinations. The title poem of Human Wishes (1989) begins:
This morning the sun rose over the garden wall and a rare blue sky leaped from east to west. Man is altogether desire, say the Upanishads. Worth anything, a blue sky, says Mr. Acker, the Shelford gardener. Not altogether. In the end. Last night on television the ethnologist and the cameraman watched with hushed wonder while the chimpanzee carefully stripped a willow branch and inserted it into the anthill. He desired red ants. When they crawled slowly up the branch, he ate them, pinched between long fingers as the zoom lens enlarged his face. Sometimes he stopped to examine one, as if he were a judge at an ant beauty contest or God puzzled suddenly by the idea of suffering. There was an empty place in the universe where that branch wasn’t and the chimp filled it, as Earlene, finding no back on an old Welsh cupboard she had bought in Saffron Walden, imagined one there and imagined both the cupboard and the imagined back against a kitchen wall in Berkeley, and went into town looking for a few boards of eighteenth-century tongue-and-groove pine to fill that empty space.
The first sentence is not promising, but what follows is terrific, in part because the gardener’s platitude deftly exposes the hollowness of the opening. The poet’s aside—“Not altogether”—responds to the Upanishads but also to Mr. Acker’s bland assertion, and that puffery about “a rare blue sky” is deflated by association. Hass has jumped a few levels of the game. The bit about the nature program is just as astute: not “there was an ethnologist” or “we saw a show where an ethnologist.” The definite articles produce an immediacy that is reinforced by the lack of framing. There is always an ethnologist on television somewhere, watching a chimp.
Human Wishes’s prose poems inaugurated a genial talkiness that also enlivens the best work in Sun Under Wood (1996) and Time and Materials (2007). The poems in these later collections are often anecdotal, playful even when politically outraged, skillfully polished in order to appear offhand, attentive to their own processes. Hass has an engaging way of seeming to switch tracks, often by tossing in a seemingly random historical factoid:
asked me yesterday: are deer monogamous? I thought of something I
had read. When deer in the British Isles were forced to live in the open
because of heavy foresting, it stunted them. The red deer who lived
in the Scottish highlands a thousand years ago were a third larger than
the present animal.
Hass is at his best when, as here, he is at his most casual. “The Miwoks called it Moon of the Only Credit Card” is not a line that would have occurred to the young man who wrote Field Guide. He cultivates a sense of having jotted down something that flitted through his thoughts, without ever straining after the unconvincing illusion of stream-of-consciousness. A poem in Time and Materials ends by musing of Whitman, “He was in love with a trolley conductor/In the summer of—what was it?—1867? 1868?” Another begins:
i am your waiter tonight and my name is dmitri
Is, more or less, the title of a poem by John Ashbery and has
No investment in the fact that you can get an adolescent
Of the human species to do almost anything
Which is why they are tromping down a road in Fallujah
In combat gear and a hundred and fifteen degrees of heat
This morning and why a young woman is strapping
Twenty pounds of explosives to her mortal body in Jerusalem.
Hass is both funny and furious here (also unfair to Ashbery’s delightful “My Name Is Dimitri,” which, by the way, is spelled by Ashbery with three i’s), but did we really need the Horatian tagline that follows? (Take a guess.)
At times this didacticism becomes preachy, and Hass sounds like Bono lecturing the un:
In the first twenty years
of the twentieth century 90 percent of war deaths were the deaths of
combatants. In the last twenty years of the twentieth century 90 percent
of war deaths were deaths of civilians. There are imaginable responses
to these facts. The nations of the world could stop setting an example
for suicide bombers. They could abolish the use of land mines. They
could abolish the use of aerial bombardment in warfare. You would
think men would relent.
—From “A Poem”
We appreciate your input, Professor Hass. We will take it under advisement.
There are many pleasures to be found in these pages. And there is a great deal of affected flummery. Even in the new poems he is saying things like “Are you smeared with the juice of cherries?” Hass has for years enjoyed a reputation that is disproportionate to his admirable but uneven powers, probably because his work answers to a silly notion of poetry as a striving toward purity. People are always wondering why Americans don’t read more poetry. It’s not a question that occurred to me once while reading this book.