What Light Can Do
I have been entertaining myself with Robert Hass whilst I wait for a book to arrive in the mountains.
Hass has something to say to me. I want a poesy that responds to the hard grain of the world. He does not shut himself away in the small particular. He doesn’t just make pretty objects in exquisite form. His friendship with Czeslaw Milosz and his work as a translator show that he crosses boundaries and frontiers, as a translator should, and lets in the big issues to his poetry and his prose. He pushes at the boundaries of “something not sayable”, Winged and Acid Dark. In that poem from Time and Materials (2008) a guard prizes the woman’s mouth open and there is a six line excursus by Basho who says “if the horror of the world were the truth of the world, there would be no one to say it and no one to say it to”, before spitting in her mouth (from Time and Materials).
You may have read my musings on Basho. Placing a quotation from Basho up against horror is appropriate because there is horror in Basho. The question of what poetry can do is at the heart of Hass’s work. The answers that come back are never clear.
What Can Light Do?
What can light do? The phrase comes from the author’s note at the beginning of the collection of essays in a reading of Robert Adams’s photography. “It is as if he thought his subject was the earth, when in fact it was the sky,” he says. This leads him on to reflect on the themes of his own life’s work: poetry of course; the violence of the century; an interest in the writers of his place; photography and landscape.
There may be other things as well that I am not noticing. If there is a sky for me in this collection, it is the act of attention itself, trying to see what’s there, what light can do. (What Light Can Do, 2009)
The act of attention itself is not entirely to be trusted. In The Dry Mountain Air, a long poem that describes a visit from his Grandma Dahling, I was completely fooled by the details, the attentive and loving description of the old lady removing her hat whilst the poet’s father moved her cases up the high steps to the entrance. At the end of the poem, the poet’s brother, four years older, says this never happened and Hass finishes:
I thought it might help to write it down here
That the truth of things might be easier to come to
On a quiet evening in the clear, dry, mountain air.
So, the three pages of delicate description including not only the act of removing the hat, but the little presents that came from the train and the poet’s obscure terror of the Grand Canyon depicted on a paper mat from the dining car, which goes to his brother, is all something else. It is literature and demands to be read, as does the fifth and last mat which shows the brooding angel, Shasta. His memory is unreliable.
The Truth of Things
The “truth of things” is a deceptively difficult phrase. In Novoneyra the truth of things is taken so literally that he proclaims he will only talk about the things that he knows directly. Normally we put the emphasis on truth and let things fold away. But poetry does the reverse. It gives us images where there really is something like truth in things: instead of the truth of things, we have the truth of things. And if those things, so tightly described and rendered are imaginary, we are left with another consideration: that the literary text itself is the thing we need to attend to. This, then, is reading: unpicking the truth of the things, the words, in front of us.
As a reader I appreciate a writer who is also a reader: someone who can play with my expectations in this knowing way. Everyone, it seems, writes, but readers are few. When Hass talks about returning to Wallace Stevens’s The Emperor of Ice Cream, I feel at home with someone who has allowed the depth and texture of a poem to filter into the soil of his life. First, he reads it as a young man on the beach with his friends, delighting in the sounds of the words, then he comes back and back to the words at different stages in his life. They have not changed but he has, and the changes in his life allow him to see the words in different lights. He falls away from them when he feels that history demands something more serious of his attention and returns with a mature understanding.
I am fifty-two. There are poems that have followed me through my life in a similar way. I go back to them with new eyes, shocked by the familiar and surprised by the details I did not see when I was seventeen, twenty-five, forty or fifty. Are the readings better? It could certainly seem so when, in moral indignation at Ted Hughes as a poet laureate, I rejected outright the poet who accompanied me through my teenage years. Then I return with the biography by Jonathan Bate in my hand and unpick something more: the words have not moved, but I can see more connections; and I have grown in compassion towards the man.
An Oak Grove
The final essay in What Light Can Do is called An Oak Grove. The subject is a grove of oak trees at the University of California at Berkeley, which was cut down to build a new sports facility. Hass starts by saying that his subject is “thinking about nature and thinking about thinking about nature, and my thesis is that we don’t do it very well.” This bald statement drew my attention because, if any subject demands attention today, the subject of our relationship to nature is crying out for revaluation.
If you are expecting a typical Romantic poet’s vindication of the natural world, you will be disappointed. Hass shows that he has sympathy and understanding for the hippies, as the sports fans call them, who include some of the most venerable protesters, such as Sylvia McLaughlin, ninety-years-old and founder in the sixties of Save the Bay. Yet, his investigations into the history of the foundation of the university, the planting of live oaks and their protection from dry rot that comes on the winds, leads him to see the trees of the campus as a garden. Not wild nature then?
He turns to Theodor Adorno, who said that “Nature” was a concept developed by the middle class in the Enlightenment and early Romantic era: “an evocation of frankness and simplicity in manners, freedom and diversity in social arrangements, unstoppable force in social movements” and that, later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nature had returned to “its previous role as an irrefutable standard by which to justify various forms of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination.” Adorno, it seems, makes scholars in the humanities tend to poo-poo the very idea of the natural.
Nature and the Wild
To avoid sinking into radical scepticism he turns to a “wildlife biologist’s definition of ‘wildness’”: “an organism living in an ecosystem among most of the processes in which it evolved.” The protesters thought they were defending nature but the grove was not wild, it was a garden. “There might have been very good reasons for preserving it, but they were not the reasons in those young people’s hearts or on their posters.”
I imagine students coming out of the lecture where he declared the necessity of a “sense of urgency and patience, and a sense of complexity and everything they can learn about the processes of the natural world” with perplexed indignation. Here a senior scholar folds poetry and history into a narrative that tells the story of an oak grove in the heart of the university, telling them that they have got it wrong, that the trees are not wild, they are a part of a carefully constructed image of the university. It may be a shame to get rid of a garden, but it is not the same as getting rid of wilderness. They are told that their teachers can give them the “gift of seeing what’s there. They can give them some of the skills of distinction, discrimination, and description and give them concepts of enormous power to refine and organize their seeing.”
I imagine those students bridling at the mandarin pronouncements of an academic who, by his own admission, paid little attention to the issue in the beginning because, like the rest of the faculty, he was overburdened with work. “Yeah, right,” they would say, “you have a vested interest in supporting the institutional way of seeing, don’t you?”
DMZ Korea and White Cranes
He ends his piece by going back to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, which he had already described in Time and Materials (2008) in a prose poem that talks of the “sheer number of bodies” of dead in the Korean War, struggles with how to think about the young soldiers who efficiently herd them to look and get them back on the civilian bus. Then finally, he sees a “flurry of white” “cattle egrets nesting in the willows.” In the essay, he writes this out. The DMZ has become “an immense, accidental game preserve” because no human being has entered it for fifty years (2009).
If there is ever peace between the Koreas and the threat of nuclear war is lifted, the DMZ will probably be developed and those two species, the white-naped and red-crowned cranes, will be that much nearer to being gone from the kinds on earth.
What is the DMZ? Is it wild nature? Or is it another kind of garden, albeit accidentally created?
Hass is a poet. In his poetry and his writing on poetry there is none of the self-confident professorial tone of the speech about the live oaks. The poems tell us that there may be a truth to things, but that truth is nowhere near as evident as we at first assume it to be: the narrator may not be reliable, themes may come from a deep well of reference, the text itself is the only truth and it may be fatally flawed. In some of his poems he goes so far as to half-obliterate words to make the point clearer. Turning this perception back on his speech about the oak grove, I can’t help but tweeze out the contradictions in the paladin certainties, masked as complexity, in his discourse.
The strongest image- and the one that I wish he had left at the end of the piece, instead of at the beginning- is the image from his wife Brenda Hillman’s poem Death Tractates: “As an egret fishes through its smeared reflections”
“Every creature,” the entomologist E.O. Wilson has remarked, “lives in its own sensory world.” And this must especially be true of humans, who have had the capacity to articulate this idea, though I have often wondered if it is not something that all mammals know about each other instinctively. Still it must especially be true of human consciousness, which emerged in this world rather late to radically alter it, and to invent ingenious ways in which to study it, and to piece together the story of how human consciousness came to be the instrument through which the world thinks about the world that in the past century has come into the care of humans and their consciousness and unconsciousness entirely.”
This could be a comment on his own very ingenious ways of studying what was happening around him.
The Cold Mountain Air
Here I am in a mountain village witnessing changes in the environment around me. Some of these changes come on the tailwind of global problems- climate change, pollution in the oceans, economic crisis- and some of them are local- rural depopulation, an increase in tourism, the building of new roads and supermarkets. The old paths choke up with fast-growing ash trees and untended fields become bramble patches. Busy government employees devise ineffective plans to stimulate the rural economy. They tout the region as a “Natural Paradise” and are happy to see more incoming tourism. Old houses collapse under the weight of their own roofs.
What is the truth of these things? What can light do? How can thinking about nature and thinking about thinking about nature be done better? I do not find the answers I would like to find in the story of the oak grove at Berkeley. I feel, in an admittedly subjective way, an ululating sadness at the passing away of one world to be replaced by another that lacks the charm of the one it replaces.
The story of how we got here is beginning to seem irrelevant.