Bliss is what you glimpse
by Keith Taylor
Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States, won the National Book Award a couple of weeks ago for his most recent collection, Time and Materials. Hass has never shied away from ambitious titles a couple of his previous collections have been titled Praise and Human Wishes and his poems reflect those ambitions, especially in Hass's continuing obsession with discovering the startling, exact image to capture a luminous moment in the natural world. In "State of the Planet," one of the long, ambitious poems included in this book, the poet sees a schoolgirl with a "red satchel on her quite straight back" crossing a street while a windstorm blows around her. In a typical leap, he imagines a science book in her bag, or things she might have collected. And since family and work have brought him to our state regularly, we even get to feel a proprietary pride in a local image:
| If she lived in Michigan or the Ukraine, |
She'd find, washed up on the beach in a storm like this
Limestone fossils of Devonian coral. She could study
The faint white markings: she might have to lick the stone
To see them if the wind was drying the pale surface
Even as she held it, to bring back the picture of what life
Looked like forty million years ago: a honeycomb with mouths.
But as much as I love Petoskey stones, it would be wrong to leave you with only that image of Hass's Time and Materials.
As the big title suggests, this poet is also concerned with large philosophical questions. There is an exploration of mortality here, grounded in the poet's life and his own aging. And Hass continues exploring another of his preoccupations the human tendency toward violence. "Bush's War" is a long poem where the current seemingly endless conflict is understood in the context of other conflicts
and atrocities. In another poem he begins with something that sounds like a joke "the fact that you get an adolescent/Of the human species to do almost anything" but continues, "Which is why they are tromping down a road in Fallujah/In combat gear. . . /This morning and why a young woman is strapping/Twenty pounds of explosives to her mortal body in Jerusalem. . . ."
But all of that, too, gives an incomplete picture of this capacious collection of poems. There is humor here, gentle and loving. And always he returns to the possibility of our imagination in contact with the world. The last poem says: "This is the moment when bliss is what you glimpse/From the corner of your eye, as you drive past/Running errands."
Robert Hass reads from Time and Materials at Rackham Auditorium on Saturday, December 1.
[Review published December 2007]