by Jennifer Clarvoe
from The Cincinnati Review, Winter 2012
1. Painting Paradise
I don't know how humanity stands it
with a painted paradise at the end of it
without a painted paradise at the end of it
—EZRA POUND, Canto LXXIV
In you, God knows, I've had the earthly life—
we were kind of religious, we thought in images.
—ROBERT LOWELL, "My Heavenly Shiner"
In the closing lines of his great poem ''Art and Life," exploring Vermeer's painting of a milkmaid, Robert Hass zeroes in on our absorption in that "small stream of milk," and on the power of painted images: "Something stays this way, something comes alive / We cannot have, can have because we cannot have it." The power of a painted paradise depends, paradoxically, on our awareness of its terrible limits. There's something a little tortured in Hass's formulation of the paradox, and that's as it should be. Throughout the body of his work, now available to us in The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, Hass is torn between an overwhelming desire to turn to images and a simultaneous need to turn away.
The Apple Trees at Olema begins with new poems and then offers Hass's books in chronological order, with selections from Field Guide (1973), Praise (1979), Human Wishes (1989), Sun under Wood (1996), and Time and Materials (2007). From the start, Hass has shown himself to be a poet of luxurious dissolves and seductive grace, as here in "Meditation at Lagunitas" from Praise: "There are moments when the body is as numinous / as words, days that are the good flesh continuing." And yet, he is deeply divided. The companion poem to "Meditation at Lagunitas," "Against Botticelli," pushes back, asserting that "In the life we lead together every paradise is lost." What, then, is our relationship to the paradise of art? Where do we find ourselves in the painting with Botticelli's Venus?
Ah, that is the secret.
That she is an otter, that Botticelli saw her so.
That we are not otters and are not in the painting
by Botticelli. We are not even in the painting by Bosch
where the people are standing around looking at the frame
of the Botticelli painting and when Love arrives, they throw up.
Or the Goya painting of the sad ones, angular and shriven,
who watch the Bosch and feel very compassionate
but hurt each other often and inefficiently. We are not in any painting.
If we do it at all, we will be like the old Russians.
We'll walk down through scrub oak to the sea
and where the seals lie preening on the beach
we will look at each other steadily
and butcher them and skin them.
We are not in any painting. Hass is a great ekphrastic writer, not because of what his poems tell us about art, but because of what they tell us about the wishes and costs, the inclusions and exclusions, in the way we frame our attention and the stories of our lives. The art that Hass most celebrates, from his earliest poems to his most recent work, is art that gives us a process whose ongoing nature we might enter. Rather than a means of living in images of deferral or denial, it might give us a genuine living in images. Hence the remarkable pairing of the two later poems, "Time and Materials" and "Art and Life," centerpieces of Hass's most recent single volume, Time and Materials. Although one might imagine Gerhard Richter's abstract canvases (in "Time and Materials") and Vermeer's luminous interiors to be at odds with each other, Hass finds a surprising point of convergence between the gestures of action painting—"To score, to scar, to smear, to streak"—and "the act of pouring a small stream of milk" in Vermeer. Richter's painting doesn't offer an image, but "Some vertical gesture then, the way that anger / Or desire can rip a life apart." It is telling that, in "Art and Life," Hass chooses to focus, not on the painter Vermeer, but on the restorer of the painting:
I peel time, with absolute care,
From thin strips of paint on three-hundred-year-old canvas.
I make the milk milk that flows from the gray-brown paint
Of a pitcher held by a represented woman.
He builds this paradise by taking it apart. The conservator takes the position of one who neither owns nor creates the images he offers—and thereby comes to coincide almost entirely with the milkmaid herself. Who is speaking here? "I am the servant of a gesture so complete, a body / So at peace, it has become a thought, entirely its own." By the end of the poem, the figure addressed could be the conservator, or Vermeer, or even Richter. The brush is held out to us:
Here is the life that chose you
And the one you chose. Here is the brush, horsehair,
Hair of the badger, the goat's beard, the sable,
And here is the smell of paint. The volatile, sharp oils
Of linseed, rapeseed. Here is the stench of the essence
Of pinewood in a can of turpentine. Here is the hand,
Flick of wrist, tendon-ripple of the brushstroke. Here—
Cloud, lake water lifting on a summer morning,
Ash and ash and chalky ash—is the stickiness of paint
Adhering to the woven flax of the canvas, here
Is the faithfulness of paint on paint on paint.
Something stays this way, something comes alive
We cannot have, can have because we cannot have it.
2. Walt Disney and the National Legion for Decency
In "Some Notes on the San Francisco Bay Area as a Culture Region" from Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, Hass tells a story about a grade-school assignment he was given: to write an essay for a contest sponsored by the National Legion for Decency in Motion Pictures, explaining why an assigned book would make a good movie. Not liking the book, Hass is pulled alternately between the arguments of his older brother, who encourages him to rebel and write "an essay on why it was not a good book and wouldn't make a good movie," and his teacher, Sister Reginald, who nonetheless persuades him that "Stranded on an Atoll would make a very educational Walt Disney film—snapping turtles, whole colonies of exotic sea birds, an octopus." His brother, however, not having been subjected to the enchantment of those images, is not as pleased, and pulls Hass back toward disenchantment. We are not surprised to learn that, the next day, Hass confronts Sister Reginald: "I wanted to submit my first essay because it was what I really thought, not the second essay which was what she thought. The speech was prepared by my brother and I am ashamed to say that I think it was exactly as real or unreal to me as each of the essays."
One version of the incident could end here, as if the pull were simply between, say, entertaining escapism and righteous denial, with young Bob unable to resist either or reconcile the two. The story continues, however, and the nun moves him toward a third option:
She heard me out, with chalk in her hand, standing at her desk, and then asked me gently, rather impressively, or at least there was something impressive about her tone, if I understood that I had very little chance of winning a contest having to do with why a book would make a good movie by writing an essay on why a book would make a bad movie .... She asked me if I would consider adding a sentence to the end of my essay saying that there were many interesting animals in the book and that it might make a good Walt Disney movie. She said it would improve my chances of winning, and I said I would, and I did. It turned out to be two sentences and she made me rewrite them several times.
Part of the story's appeal rests in how compelling Hass has made Sister Reginald, who could so easily have been a straw figure, speaking for the sentimental. We are initially struck, as he is, by what she makes him see, the vivid images that take on a vivacity and momentum of their own as they enter his imagination. But we are also moved by the way she speaks (rather drily) for the real. She made him write and rewrite those last two sentences, and he has continued to rewrite them, in poem after poem, throughout his career. Again and again his poems dramatize the pull and counterpull of enchantment and disenchantment: how we wish to let ourselves be carried away by the power of images, and how we recognize the need to pull back and be skeptical of that power.
3. In Cinemascope and the Tokugawa Dynasty
Let me suggest, for example, that "Heroic Simile," the wonderful poem that opens Hass's second book, Praise, plays out a version of the incident with Sister Reginald in reverse. It tells us that Homer's Iliad would make an excellent movie, and that the movie it would make is The Seven Samurai. The poem encourages us to fall in love with both of them:
When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa's Seven
in the gray rain,
in Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing
and on the third day he brought his uncle.
We become absorbed in this scene, which effortlessly braids the different worlds of movie, nature, epic, word, and image into each other, carrying us along. It's not a visual strategy, although it feels like one, but a syntactic strategy, succeeding because of the way the mind connects the images, framing and editing them. We go in and in and ever further in, so that the different registers of literal, figurative, explanatory, and digressive details are crossed easily and all but invisibly. (Centuries of poems and critics—Milton, Pope, Johnson, Angus Fletcher, John Hollander—might be drawn along in the wake of the imagination here; we don't have to recognize currents of allusion to be the beneficiaries of their alluvial energies.) It is a kind of magic, the way that tree springs up like Jack's beanstalk from the seeds planted in our visual imagination, and magic too the way it requires and invites the woodsman and his uncle, those reader-surrogates, to wonder what to do with the overflow. And what do we do when the eddies of improvisatory momentum that brought us these figures begin to trail away? We look to the poet, as the woodsman and his uncle do, to learn how to carryon. His response is rueful:
I don't know
whether they're Japanese or Mycenaean
and there's nothing I can do.
The path from that village
is not translated. A hero, dying,
gives off stillness to the air.
A man and a woman walk from the movies
to the house in the silence of separate fidelities.
There are limits to imagination.
The lights come up, and we leave the theater. The last two sentences of this poem do the same kind of work, in reverse, as the last two sentences appended to Hass's boyhood essay on Stranded on an Atoll: They offer the counterpull to the rest of the work, recognizing the necessary disenchantment, the "separate fidelities," the "limits to imagination."
4. Separate Fidelities and Massive Projection
Movies thread their way through Hass's poems. One of his new ones echoes the ending of "Heroic Simile":
A man and a woman, old friends, are in a theater
watching a movie in which a man and a woman,
old friends, are driving through summer on a mountain road.
("September Notebook: Stories")
The man and woman here are playing the same kind of game we saw in the earlier poem, dissolving one frame into another, but the worries about what they can share are no longer withheld until the end; they have moved into the foreground. She is describing grief at the end of her marriage, a grief he can only imperfectly imagine. So enmeshed are they in the difficulties of traveling together in their related unhappinesses,
they are not sure whether they are in the theater
or on the mountain road, and when the timber truck
comes suddenly around the bend, they both flinch.
It's hard to escape a sense that this timber truck is one the woodsman and his uncle from "Heroic Simile" have been waiting more than thirty years for, to carry away their bundles of fallen pine. One of the pleasures of reading this volume is to register such interconnections, sometimes overt, sometimes nearly unnoticeable, between the earlier and later poems. It's a bit like following actors through their evolving careers, rather than following the same characters through one developing story. What different roles do they take on as they age, what new notes do those roles let them express—and what do they teach us about the ways we revisit our pasts? Surely these "old friends" from "September Notebook" have traveled quite a distance from the couple we met in ''Adhesive: For Earlene" from Hass's first book, Field Guide:
Berkeley seemed more innocent
in those flush days
when we skipped lunch
to have the price of Les Enfants du Paradis.
Marcel Carne's paradise was one whose cost we knew and were willing to pay. But this innocent couple from Field Guide will eventually walk out of the theater into the "separate fidelities" of Praise, which frames things differently.
Thirty or forty years after first seeing classic films, we don't look back at those cinematic worlds the same way—we reread more critically, as the characters themselves do. For example, "Vintage," from Hass's third book, Human Wishes, looks back with disenchantment on such a time:
They had agreed, walking into the delicatessen on Sixth Avenue, that
their friends' affairs were focused and saddened by massive
movie screens in their childhood were immense, and someone had
proposed that need was unlovable.
So much for the epic grandeur of our old screen wishes; now we need to be separated from "massive projection" and unlovable need. By the time we reach Hass's Pulitzer Prize-winning fifth book, Time and Materials, the immense screen has dwindled down to an "Old Movie with the Sound Turned Off"—a Netflix choice, perhaps, in black-and-white. Yet, at a reduced scale, it still has the power to enchant:
Some quality in the film stock that they used
Made everything so shiny that the films could not
Not make the whole world look like lingerie, like
Phosphorescent milk with winking shadows in it.
But there is no crowd in the dark; there is not even the couple together watching. There are no old friends comparing difficult sadnesses. At the end of the tunnel, we find the self watching the self watching. Hass sets up the dream machinery, but then ruefully, and relentlessly, takes the machine apart. By the end of the poem, the disenchantments have multiplied. We no longer imagine the actors outliving their stories, taking on new roles. The actors, it turns out, worked as hard and perhaps as hopelessly as the woodsman and his uncle from "Heroic Simile," but without even the power of those imagined characters, they of course eventually die.
All the dead actors were pretty in their day. Why
Am I watching this movie? you may ask. Well, my beloved,
Down the hall, is probably laboring over a poem
And is not to be disturbed. And look! I have rediscovered
The sweetness and the immortality of art. The actress
Wrote under a pseudonym, died, I think, of cancer of the lungs.
So many of them did. Far better for me to be doing this
(A last lurid patch of fog out of which the phrase "The End"
Comes swimming; the music I can't hear surging now
Like fate) than reading with actual attention my field guides
Which inform me that the flower of the incense cedar I saw
This morning by the creek is "unisexual, solitary, and terminal."
If the first few lines of this closing passage jangle uncomfortably, jeering at the "sweetness" we once desired, the last lines nevertheless find their tone, knowing what to make of a diminished thing.
5. The Apple Trees at Olema
But all along, the movies themselves were not the point, or not the only point. They allowed the poems to question the way the violent appeal of the sensory world carries us out of ourselves—into "the sublime"—and simultaneously gives us access to something that feels like our truer, inner selves. The dream of the movies is that if we're all in the dark together experiencing this, maybe we're also together in something more profound than projection. "The Apple Trees at Olema," the title poem of this volume, plays out another version of this story, in a landscape that is anything but a movie house. Here the man and woman are in a blossoming apple orchard, to which they both respond with intensity. What he sees, what she sees, the almost-sexual, more-than-sexual intimacy, is wished for, but not granted:
She is shaken by the raw, white, backlit flaring
of the apple blossoms. He is exultant,
as if something he felt were verified,
and looks to her to mirror his response.
If it is afternoon, a thin moon of my own dismay
fades like a scar in the sky to the east of them.
He could be knocking wildly at a closed door
in a dream.
Both figures are shaken by the sight of the stunning blossoms, but they are shaken differently. Notice how their emotions modulate through the (hitherto unseen) narrator's own dismay as it comes between them. The rest of the poem takes the measure of their mild disappointment in their difference, the rhythms of their eventual, provisional rapprochement:
The light catching in the spray that spumes up
on the reef is the color of the lesser finch
they notice now flashing dull gold in the light
above the field. They admire the bird together,
it draws them closer, and they start to walk again.
The poem ends with a muted but evocative comparison:
A small boy wanders corridors of a hotel that way.
Behind one door, a maid. Behind another one, a man
in striped pajamas shaving. He holds the number
of his room close to the center of his mind
gravely and delicately, as if it were the key,
and then he wanders among strangers all he wants.
The ending implies that whatever our intimacy with others, whatever we might discover as we draw close to them, and whatever the scenes that art and the natural world afford to draw us closer to each other, we will never derive from any of this anything to equal the intimacy of the child's communing with his own imaginings. But it also offers the counterpull, the reminder, that if we can't go further in, there is inspiration even in being shut out, in stepping back.
The variety and versatility of Hass's verse forms have not been noted enough. The modulation is not simply between graceful free verse and unobtrusive pentameter, granted gravity and expansiveness through explorations in prose. One could devote a long essay to naming and to litanies, and another to all the implications and permutations of simple repetition—to compare the ways that more than thirty years ago "Meditation at Lagunitas" could end with "blackberry, blackberry, blackberry," while the new poem "August Notebook: A Death" can't allow itself to conclude with "downriver downriver." Rhythm implicitly embodies and offers the reader entrance into the paradoxes and contradictory wishes these poems continue to sing, and formal choices are neither decoration nor technicality, but the crucial dignities we grant our written lives, our deaths.
One of the last poems in the collection, "Consciousness," tries out various images for consciousness: blue sky, the moan of a foghorn, coyotes on a ridge. The poem proceeds with equal parts clarity and mystery, argument and equanimity. In and among his friends' definitions of consciousness, Hass attempts to give us his own "first image of consciousness" from what he would have seen as a baby in a crib on a roof, but this original image must come in layered qualifications:
So I think that first image of consciousness in my consciousness is not the memory of a visual perception but the invention of the image of a visual perception—the picture of a field of pure blue—that came into my head when my grandmother told me that story.
Not the sight, not the memory, but the invention of the image, produced afterward upon hearing the story. This is material Hass has been exploring throughout his career, with increasing subtlety and discrimination. In these new and selected poems, his cumulative accomplishment becomes clear.
About the Author
Jennifer Clarvoe's first book of poems, Invisible Tender (Fordham University Press, 2000), won the Poets Out Loud Prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her second book of poems, Counter-Amores, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011. A recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature, she teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio.
University of Cincinnati
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