The Shock of Liberty

(This review of Hass and Williams appeared in the Summer issue of Poetry Review.)

Robert Hass, The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected poems (Bloodaxe), 352pp, £15; C.K. Williams, Wait (Bloodaxe), 125pp, £9.95

There is an exhilaration about reading certain poets whose powers continue to heighten with age – their gifts have somehow conspired to coincide with their maturity. Some peak much earlier – an extreme case would be Rimbaud, while others, like Auden, seem made for middle rather than old age. But the great poets of the later decades – Hardy and Kunitz comes to mind – excite because the reader rapidly understands that their imagination can and will go anywhere. Robert Hass and C.K. Williams are barely septuagenarians, but both give off this shock of imaginative liberty in their latest work. Both can be said to have been cultivating just such liberty throughout their careers – each have been prolific, publishing around twenty or more books each – but in these collections there is a sense that they are not merely reconsidering, but are prepared to completely remake the themes of their earlier work.

C.K. Williams’s collection, his tenth with Bloodaxe, is in four restless sections, moving between the tensile line for which he is famous, and the shorter emphatic measure he put to such interesting effect in, among other volumes, The Singing. He also moves between lyric aperçus based in direct observation, variations sparked by a literary or mythic theme, and ruminative meditations on the convolutions of thought as it tries to engage with and evade its own limits. In each he displays a master’s sure-footedness with regard to shaping a poem and moving between the registers of sharp observation and sonorous summation. But he also displays a daring flexibility of register, as happy to plunge into italic emphasis as to invoke a god – sometimes within the same poem.

The first section of Wait consists of series of responses, compassionate, subtle, precise, to both animals and people as they reflect each other and present themselves, whether in lived experience or in the imagined second life of reading – a fish-head on the pavement outside a ‘hairdressers’ supply store’ is a sufficiently odd conjunction to draw the observation

It must recently have been left there,
its scales shone and its visible eye
had enough light left in it
so it looked as they will for a while

astonished and disconsolate

This is contrasted with the heads in the window behind, ‘bewigged, painstakingly coiffed,’ which are also anthropomorphised in what effortlessly becomes a meditation not on mortality, but on the Yeatsian theme of how we handle our awareness of mortality, with the lifeless head and the simulacra ironically contemplating what they cannot, while the poem flips this over to challenge us and itself:

Better stay here, with eyes of glass,
like people in advertisements,
and without bodies or blood,
like people in poems.

This image of presence or lack of it is explored in several other poems: from a woman on the Paris Metro who, on glimpsing an affinity between what she and the poet are reading, ‘becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before,’ the body responding to the mind; to a girl who, in rejecting his youthful touch, ‘began turning her belly to wood…the rest of her to something harder.’ That this is a species of metamorphosis, that metamorphosis is, itself, our way of explaining the interactions of our passions and our intellect, is underscored by a series of poems focussed on reading – Tsvetaeva, Dillard, Ortega y Gasset – which counter a simplistic division between the life of the mind and that of the body. These are summed up by a line and a half about the estrangement between Coleridge and his son: ‘as though he were a character/in one of the more than minor tragedies he might have written.’

The presence of missed opportunity, the persistence of guilt, and the recurrence of the unsaid, haunt a series of portraits in the central parts of the book, from a mentor whose potential fizzled out in Mexico to the agonised contemplation by Martin Luther King of contemporary America, and is summed up by the elegy for Robert Lax which focusses on a point where the undone is in a sense accomplished, and the done is in another sense incomplete: the act of prayer:

And here Lax prayed, the way he prayed – no one really knew quite
how he prayed – (of fishermen he wrote that one ‘…crossed himself
(lightly) without seeming to; the others not, without not seeming to…’)

That the lucid complexity of Lax’s phrase appears absorbed within Williams’s own intricately accurate syntax is a marker of his capaciousness – there are plenty of examples here of his characteristic line’s capacity to shake up the syntax with an unexpected word: ‘go back to where it all starts,/past Heraclitus, Hephaestus, Baal, the bacteria-kings, to the inception,’ ‘literally, with precision, and no patching of gaps with however inspired imaginative spackle.’

This comes to a climax in the final poem, ‘Jew on Bridge’ where heritage, identity, literature and responsibility are all confronted in an exploration of theme arising from a brief passage in Crime and Punishment: ‘On page something or other, chapter something, Raskolnikov sees JEW.’ As with Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden, what follows is an attempt to reconcile what is great with what is despicable about us. Ranging from family history to the deaths of Celan and Walter Benjamin, Williams evokes the act of dying not just as ‘that moment you know you are going to die,’ but ‘the moment past that,’ where the imagination becomes capable of moving beyond animal terror or pious compassion, and apprehends the marvellous patterns of our limitations as, in Celan’s term, fugue:

…the searing through you you realise is your grief,
for humans, all humans, their world and their cosmos and oil-cloth stars.
All of it worse than your fear and grief for your own minor death.

One of the interesting distinctions between a collection and a selected work is that in that latter you can see time and experience in the act of boiling away what the poet considers to be unnecessary or less successful. You can also see the distance across which – and the intensity with which – themes, lines and ideas recur in his or her imagination. The Apple Trees at Olema is a succinct summation of almost forty year’s work, from 1973’s Field Guide through to a body of new poems in which Hass’s typical concerns are subjected to new scrutiny, and his customary approach to these concerns are tested by this most stringent of imaginations. From that first collection he has been setting his exceptional eye for the Californian landscape against the sometimes cataclysmic intimacies of family, and has charted the changing demands of his passionate engagement with both the intellectual climate of the US, and the ruthless revisions of its history.

His gifts are present from the beginning: a lyric exactitude of vocabulary when it comes to plants, animals and particularly birdlife – he is a master of modern eclogue: ‘Toyon, old oak, and coffeeberry: always about halfway,/but especially if the day had been hot, the scent of vanilla grass…’ He has a way with couplet which he plays against the different tensions of the long poem or sequence in contrasting forms: ‘The dead with their black lips are heaped/on one another, intimate as lovers.’ There is the capacity to step into or out of the poem at a critical moment, to shift the reader’s perspective on what is being done: ‘The woodsman and the old man his uncle…/have stopped working/because they are tired and because/I have imagined no pack animal…’ There is the light touch with intellectual complexity: ‘The snark is writing a novel/called The Hunting of the Self.’ And above all there is the concision and memorability with which he introduces the major themes of public and private life, whether the late and subtle political poem ‘Bush’s War’ which both isn’t and is about what its title suggests, or the intense domestic rites of passage of nurture, divorce, acceptance and bereavement which occupy four key poems, ‘Santa Barbara Road,’ ‘My Mother’s Nipples,’ ‘Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer’ and ‘August Notebook: A Death’

The dialogue between father and teenage son in the first of these, in which they are simultaneously separated and united by the act of reading, and the particular texts they use to talk teach other, is handled with great subtlety, the son encountering Sartre and rebellion at the same moment as the father tries to engage with a form of classical Chinese poetry, the alternating rhyme and prose of Fu:

‘Bullshit,’ he mutters, ‘what is the existential reality’ –
he has just read Nausea in advanced English –
‘of all this bullshit, Todo?’
Todo is the dog. It occurs to me
that I am not a very satisfying parent
to rebel against. Like an unmoored boat
drifting aimlessly, not even valuing
the breath of life, the wise man
embrace nothing, and drifts with it.

Even as he ironically depicts himself using Chia Yi’s ancient ‘Fu on the Owl,’ Hass can’t resist reordering the lines of the original for dramatic effect.

The related theme of his parents’ marriage and his mother’s alcoholism, not engaged with till the 1996 collection, Sun under Wood, is announced in a slightly earlier poem as ‘what my parents in the innocence of their malice/toward each other did to me.’ This collection revives images from earlier books – the grim naming of Steller’s Jay and how the Archangel Raphael cured blindness – and ‘My Mother’s Nipples’ alternates the Stevensian register of lines like ‘Alors! Les nipples de ma mere!’ with the stark prose which depicts a ten year old boy finding his mother passed out drunk in a park: ‘I suppose I wanted for us to look like a son and mother who had been picnicking, like a mother who had fallen asleep in the wry light and scent of orange blossom and a boy who was sitting beside her daydreaming…’

Divorce, the third marker of division from the edenic pastoral, is first hinted at in one of Hass’s carefully-modulated portrayals of sex as an attempt to recover an impossible wholeness: ‘They are trying to become one creature/and something will not have it.’ In ‘Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer’ the accidental loss of his wedding ring is set against a deep field of reference summoning up the range of ideas and experiences that find home in his work – Derrida’s discovery of groundlessness, vacant niches in European churches, the empty hands of a carved Buddha, all handled with a combination of intellectual lightness and emotional intensity, before settling on a simple, disturbing, liberating act – eating baby chicken in a Korean market and wondering ‘if you were meant to eat the bones. You were. I did.’

The reader’s sense of engaging with the whole life of a gifted and various writer reaches its conclusion in the poems about the death of his brother, an apparently addictive personality who denied the troubling inheritance of his parents’ marriage. While his elegies for Miłosz, whose work he spent so many years translating, have a rounded gravity, a sense of a life completed, there is here a contrasting acceptance of anger into the fabric of the ‘August Notebook,’ which begins by preserving a misprint, includes a solemn quoting of the blues, and preserves the note-taker’s present moment, as well as the provisionality of his emotional responses, setting it against the form in a manner that sums up this most civilised critic of what we as a civilisation and as citizens do to ourselves and to others:

I imagine he is in one of those aluminium
cubicles I’ve seen in the movies,
dressed or not. I also imagine that,

if they undressed him, and perhaps washed
his body or gave it an alcohol rub
to disinfect it, that that was the job

of some emigrant from a hot, poor country.
Anyway, he is dressed in this stanza,
which mimics the terza rima of Dante’s comedy

and is a form that Wallace Stevens liked
to use, and also my dear friend Robert.
And ‘seemed peaceful’ is a kind of metaphor.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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