Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Poetry Month -- Day 2

Before I butcher an analysis of today's poem, I'd like to mention that these poems are people's unique works of art, and that I reproduce them here with the hope that you'll like a few of them enough to buy a book. It's already hard to make a living as a poet, so help them out and buy a book. Today's poem is "Meditations at Lagunitas" by Robert Hass.


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. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

- Robert Hass

This poem, I think, is a bit more difficult than the O'Hara from yesterday. Or at least it is for me. Again, it seems like it's saying something about language, and how inadequate language can be. The lines, "because there is in this world no one thing/to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,/a word is elegy to what it signifies." suggests that once something is named, it ceases to be what it once was. There's a fundamental divide between the natural world and the cognizant, named world of people.

Except that people are part of the natural world, too. The latter half of the poem is a memory from the poet's youth triggered by a nearly unrelated sensation of holding his lover's shoulders ("It hardly had to do with her."). Indeed, these memories, launched by the feel of a human being, of "her small shoulders," convinces him that "There are moments when the human body is as numinous as words." Numinous is an interesting word here. It means "surpassing comprehension, unknowable." What's interesting is that Hass suggests words are beyond our comprehension, that once we've given something a label, a word, it "dissolves." And yet, here's this woman. Holding his lover, the poet feels a "violent wonder at her presence." Hass isn't bemoaning the limits of language; rather he's celebrating its wonder. The tenderness of saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry is what he longs for, not seeing a blackberry bramble. It's the language, not the thing itself.

Robert Hass lives in California, and was Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995-97. When I lived in Iowa, his work was popular amongst many of the poets I knew (Iowa is the only place where I've had the pleasure of knowing poets). This poem was on my refrigerator when I lived in Iowa. I'd like to say that I thought about it a lot, but the truth is that, after reading it once or twice, it became nothing more than a scrap of paper, no more important to me than the photograph of a high school boy who designs ties that I had clipped from the New York Times magazine. That's not to say that I don't like this poem, because I do. I think I just wasn't ready to think about it then. Maybe now that I've experienced so much more longing (I've really packed the longing in these past few years) it makes more sense to me. If you don't "get" this poem now, print it out, put it on your refrigerator.

Tomorrow I'm going to try to pick a poem that doesn't require so much, I don't know, Lacan.


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