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Poetic Reflections on Limitations

Time and Materials by Robert Hass,
Harper Collins. Reviewed by L M WALLACE

Thirty-five years after the publication of his first poetry collection, comes Robert Hass’ fifth, Time and Materials. It is a volume of poems collected from 1997 to 2005, the span indicative of Hass’ craftsmanship, his shaping of his work. It seems it is the age of the poet – Hass now nearing seventy – that has allowed these deep reflections on limitations, politics, and moments passed. There is a feeling that they were not possible before.

The collection begins with an extremely short opening poem, which immediately reminded me of one of my favourite openers, ‘Evening Chess’ in Charles Simic’s Hotel Insomnia. However, rather than delivering the whack that Simic’s poem does, Hass’ two line ‘Iowa, January’ sets the book’s stark reflective mood: “In the long winter nights, a farmer’s dreams are narrow./ Over and over, he enters the furrow.” Even the visual impact of the expanse of the near-blank page complements the tone, and like the farmer of the poem ‘entering the furrow’, Hass gently prepares us for the entering of his book.

This starkness that holds depths of meaning is characteristic of Hass’ work, Hass having long been interested in haiku. He is often able to convey a sense or a mood through a minute image, rather than a lengthy exploration, “Trimming a luxuriant moustache” one of the book’s most delightful haiku-like lines from ‘A Supple Wreath of Myrtle’.

One of the collection’s first comments on restrictions is an analysis of the poet’s own limitations; of the materials we use to ‘create’. The complementary poems ‘The Problem of Describing Color’ and ‘The Problem of Describing Trees’ are two of the more obvious examples. But the joy of Hass’ poetry is that he is not a one-trick poet. Although he may be describing the difficulty and frustration of trying to convey meaning and the limits of language in this pursuit, he is successful in other ways. In ‘The Problem of Describing Color’, the accumulation of images creates a richness that leaves language for dead, ending almost exhausted with the simple “Red, I said. Sudden, red.”

Despite what Hass defines as problematic, he never gives up on exploring the possibilities of language. Throughout the collection there are repetitions of words and motifs, and whispers within the book that provide cohesion. The poem written for the passing of his friend, ‘Czeslaw Milosz: In Memoriam’ begins with a wonderful little introductory story about a conversation they once had on the difference between ‘Oh!’ and ‘O!’ It is a personal anecdote which allows insight into Hass’ love for language and its nuances, which of course come through in his poems, and it is a fine example from a genuine friendship built on these fascinations and values.

One of the book’s charms is its pacing. It is not a collection you rush through, and you feel it has been written in the same way. This book is about reflection – moments spent in the company of friends, the world today and the impact of war, as well as histories and fate – real or imagined.

Hass is at his most political in Time and Materials. There are a number of poems directly concerning recent political tensions, ‘Bush’s War’ for one, as well as reflections on how little we have learned from history, Hass often simply putting forward ‘facts’ without poetic embellishment, such is his conviction: “More Iraqi civilians have now been incidental casualties of the conduct of the war in Iraq than were killed by Arab terrorists in the destruction of the World Trade Centre.” (‘A Poem’). You really sense that Hass has been moved to act. But you never feel bombarded – Hass balances the mood of the book by his placement of poems. ‘State of the Planet’, a very heavy commentary piece is followed by the light-hearted play with language, ‘Poem with a Cucumber in it’.

No one escapes allegation. ‘After Goethe’, (“In all the mountains, / Stillness; / In the treetops/ Not a breath of wind. / The birds are silent in the woods. / Just wait: soon enough/ You will be quiet too.”) is a mirror to Goethe’s original poem, but by placing it amongst the more political poems in his book Hass loads it with implication and leaves it at our (the reader’s) feet. The ‘You’ really jumps off the page. Perhaps this serves as both an imperative of the collection’s title, that time is short and for this we should act, but also that there is some sort of inevitable cosmic justice that will catch up with us all eventually, the line soon repeated in ‘Bush’s War’. History in this book feels both confused – in the case of family history a composition of remembered truths – and at the same time wholly indisputable and something we will all be held accountable for.

Powerlessness or the limits of one’s influence is one of the book’s concerns I found the most commanding. The poem ‘The World as Will and Representation’ is a complete and utter knock-out, a description of a morning routine Hass became accustomed to as a child. He and his father would have to monitor Hass’ mother to make sure she took and kept down the pills that would prevent her drinking alcohol (we assume the poem is about Hass as his mother was an alcoholic, the source of much of the material for his famous Sun Under Wood). The intimate knowledge of alcoholism and the grim practical realities of dealing with it are here powerfully rendered.

I would not say that this is a book for everyone. It is largely heavy in tone, and the text is laden with literary references of the likes of Horace, Goethe and others. However, Hass’ craftsmanship is to be admired and for this alone Time and Materials is worth reading. The cohesion and reflection in these poems is inspired, and the simplicity with which Hass comments on global situations and delivers gritty information, is extremely powerful and not as easy as it may appear on the page. Hass is truly at the top of his game, and you feel that some kind of switch has flicked internally, allowing him a more complete openness and honesty, and a desire to directly confront difficult topics, that will see him deliver some of his finest poems yet.

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Louise Wallace is a Wellington poet and reviewer

LINKS
Slate Review
New York Times Review