a story about the body :: robert hass

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity–like music–withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl–she must have swept them from the corners of her studio–was full of dead bees.

faint music :: robert hass

Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.

When everything broken is broken,
and everything dead is dead,
and the hero has looked into the mirror with complete contempt,
and the heroine has studied her face and its defects
remorselessly, and the pain they thought might,
as a token of their earnestness, release them from themselves
has lost its novelty and not released them,
and they have begun to think, kindly and distantly,
watching the others go about their days—
likes and dislikes, reasons, habits, fears—
that self-love is the one weedy stalk
of every human blossoming, and understood,
therefore, why they had been, all their lives,
in such a fury to defend it, and that no one—
except some almost inconceivable saint in his pool
of poverty and silence—can escape this violent, automatic
life’s companion ever, maybe then, ordinary light,
faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears.

As in the story a friend told once about the time
he tried to kill himself. His girl had left him.
Bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.
He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge,
the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon.
And in the salt air he thought about the word “seafood,”
that there was something faintly ridiculous about it.
No one said “landfood.” He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch
he’d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass,
scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp
along the coast—and he realized that the reason for the word
was crabs, or mussels, clams. Otherwise
the restaurants could just put “fish” up on their signs,
and when he woke—he’d slept for hours, curled up
on the girder like a child—the sun was going down
and he felt a little better, and afraid. He put on the jacket
he’d used for a pillow, climbed over the railing
carefully, and drove home to an empty house.

There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties
hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed.
A faint russet in the crotch that made him sick
with rage and grief. He knew more or less
where she was. A flat somewhere on Russian Hill.
They’d have just finished making love. She’d have tears
in her eyes and touch his jawbone gratefully. “God,”
she’d say, “you are so good for me.” Winking lights,
a foggy view downhill toward the harbor and the bay.
“You’re sad,” he’d say. “Yes.” “Thinking about Nick?”
“Yes,” she’d say and cry. “I tried so hard,” sobbing now,
“I really tried so hard.” And then he’d hold her for a while—
Guatemalan weavings from his fieldwork on the wall—
and then they’d fuck again, and she would cry some more,
and go to sleep.
                    And he, he would play that scene
once only, once and a half, and tell himself
that he was going to carry it for a very long time
and that there was nothing he could do
but carry it. He went out onto the porch, and listened
to the forest in the summer dark, madrone bark
cracking and curling as the cold came up.

It’s not the story though, not the friend
leaning toward you, saying “And then I realized—,”
which is the part of stories one never quite believes.
I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.
And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—
First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.

our lady of the snows :: robert hass

In white,
the unpainted statue of the young girl
on the side altar
made the quality of mercy seem scrupulous and calm.

When my mother was in a hospital drying out,
or drinking at a pace that would put her there soon,
I would slip in the side door,
light an aromatic candle,
and bargain for us both.
Or else I’d stare into the day-moon of that face
and, if I concentrated, fly.

Come down! come down!
she’d call, because I was so high.

Though mostly when I think of myself
at that age, I am standing at my older brother’s closet
studying the shirts,
convinced that I could be absolutely transformed
by something I could borrow.
And the days churned by,
navigable sorrow.

from Sun Under Wood (1998)

happiness :: robert hass

Because yesterday morning from the steamy window
we saw a pair of red foxes across the creek
eating the last windfall apples in the rain—
they looked up at us with their green eyes
long enough to symbolize the wakefulness of living things
and then went back to eating—
and because this morning
when she went into the gazebo with her black pen and yellow pad
to coax an inquisitive soul
from what she thinks of as the reluctance of matter,
I drove into town to drink tea in the café
and write notes in a journal—mist rose from the bay
like the luminous and indefinite aspect of intention,
and a small flock of tundra swans
for the second winter in a row was feeding on new grass
in the soaked fields; they symbolize mystery, I suppose,
they are also called whistling swans, are very white,
and their eyes are black—

and because the tea steamed in front of me,
and the notebook, turned to a new page,
was blank except for a faint blue idea of order,
I wrote: happiness! it is December, very cold,
we woke early this morning,
and lay in bed kissing,
our eyes squinched up like bats.

misery and splendor :: robert hass

Summoned by conscious recollection, she
would be smiling, they might be in a kitchen talking,
before or after dinner. But they are in this other room,
the window has many small panes, and they are on a couch
embracing. He holds her as tightly
as he can, she buries herself in his body.
Morning, maybe it is evening, light
is flowing through the room. Outside,
the day is slowly succeeded by night,
succeeded by day. The process wobbles wildly
and accelerates: weeks, months, years. The light in the room
does not change, so it is plain what is happening.
They are trying to become one creature,
and something will not have it. They are tender
with each other, afraid
their brief, sharp cries will reconcile them to the moment
when they fall away again. So they rub against each other,
their mouths dry, then wet, then dry.
They feel themselves at the center of a powerful
and baffled will. They feel
they are an almost animal,
washed up on the shore of a world—
or huddled against the gate of a garden—
to which they can’t admit they can never be admitted.

variations on a passage in edward abbey :: robert hass

A dune begins with an obstacle—a stone, a shrub, a log,
anything heavy enough to resist being moved by wind.

This obstacle forms a wind shadow on its leeward side,
making eddies in the currents, now fast, now slow, of the air,

exactly as a rock in a stream causes an eddy in the water.
Within the eddy the wind moves with less force and less velocity

than the airstreams on either side, creating what geologists call
the surface of discontinuity. And it is here that the wind

tends to drop part of its load of sand. The sand particles,
which hop or bounce along the earth before the wind,

begin to accumulate,
        creating a greater eddy in the air currents
and capturing still more sand.
                                            It’s thus a dune is formed.

Viewed in cross section, sand dunes display a characteristic profile.
On the windward side the angle of ascent is low and gradual—

twenty to twenty-five degrees from the horizontal. On the leeward side
the slope is much steeper, usually about thirty-four degrees—

the angle of repose of sand and most other loose materials.
The steep side of the dune is called the slip face
                                                                        because of the slides
that occur as sand is driven up the windward side
and deposited on or just over the crest.
                                                        The weight of the crest
eventually becomes greater than can be supported by the sand beneath,
so the extra sand slumps down the slip face
                                                                and the whole dune
advances in the direction of the prevailing wind, until some obstacle
like a mountain intervenes.
                                        This movement, this grand slow march
across the earth’s surface, has an external counterpart in the scouring
movement of glaciers,
                                    and an internal one in the movement of grief
which has something in it of the desert’s bareness
and of its distances.

some of david’s story :: robert hass

“That first time I met her, at the party, she said,
‘I have an English father and an American mother
and I went to school in London and Providence, Rhode Island,
and at some point I had to choose,
so I moved back to London and became the sort of person
who says puh-son instead of purr-son.’
For the first person she had chosen an accent
halfway between the other two.
It was so elegant I fell in love on the spot. Later,
I understood that it was because I thought
that little verbal finesse meant
she had made herself up entirely.
I felt so much what I was and, you know,
that what I was was not that much,
so she just seemed breathtaking.”


“Her neck was the thing, and that tangle of copper hair.
And, in those days, her laugh, the way
she moved through a room. Like Landor’s line—
she was meandering gold, pellucid gold.”


“Her father was a philosopher,
fairly eminent in that world, and the first time
I was there to dinner, they talked about California wines
in deference to me, I think, though it was a subject
about which I was still too broke to have a thing to say,
so I changed the subject and asked him
what kind of music he liked. He said, ‘I loathe music.’
And I said, ‘All music?’ And he said—
he seemed very amused by himself but also
quite serious, ‘Almost all music, almost all the time.’
and I said ‘Beethoven?’ And he said
‘I loathe Beethoven, and I loathe Stravinsky,
who loathed Beethoven.'”


“Later, in the night, we talked about it.
‘It’s feelings,’ she said, laughing. ‘He says
he doesn’t want other people putting their feelings into him
any more than he wants,’ and then she imitated
his silvery rich voice, ‘them putting their organs
into me at great length and without my consent.’
And she rolled onto my chest and wiggled herself
into position and whispered in my ear,
‘So I’ll put my feelings in you, okay?’
humming it as if it were a little tune.”


“Anyway, I was besotted. In that stage, you know,
when everything about her amazed me.
One time I looked in her underwear drawer.
She had eight pair of orange panties
and one pair that was sort of lemon yellow, none of them
very new. So that was something
to think about. What kind of woman
basically wears only orange panties.”


“She had the most beautiful neck on earth.
A swan’s neck. When we made love, in those first weeks,
in my grubby little graduate student bed-sit,
I’d weep afterward from gratitude while she smoked
and then we’d walk along the embankment to look at the lights
just coming on—it was midsummer—and then we’d eat something
at an Indian place and I’d watch her put forkfuls of curry
into that soft mouth I’d been kissing. It was still
just faintly light at midnight and I’d walk her home
and the wind would be coming up on the river.”


“In theory she was only part-time at Amnesty
but by fall she was there every night, later and later.
She just got to be obsessed. Political torture, mostly.
Abu Ghraib, the photographs. She had every one of them.
And photographs of the hands of some Iranian feminist journalist
that the police had taken pliers to. And Africa,
of course, Darfur, starvation, genital mutilation.
The whole starter kit of anguished causes.”


“I’d wake up in the night
and not hear her sleeper’s breathing
and turn toward her and she’d be looking at me,
wide-eyed, and say, as if we were in the middle of a conversation,
‘Do you know what the report said? It said
she had been raped multiple times and that she died
of one strong blow—they call it blunt trauma—
to the back of her head,
but she also had twenty-seven hairline fractures
to the skull, so they think the interrogation
went on for some time.'”


“—So I said, ‘Yes, I can tell you exactly
what I want.’ She had her head propped up on one elbow,
she was so beautiful, her hair
that Botticellian copper. ‘Look,’ I said,
‘I know the world is an awful place, but I would like,
some night, to make love or walk along the river
without having to talk about George fucking Bush
or Tony fucking Blair.’ I picked up her hand.
‘You bite your fingernails raw.
You should quit smoking. You’re entitled, we’re entitled
to a little happiness.’ She looked at me,
coolly, and gave me a perfunctory kiss
on the neck and said, ‘You sound like my mother.'”


“We were at a party and she introduced me
to one of her colleagues, tall girl, auburn hair,
absolutely white skin. After she walked away,
I said, ‘A wan English beauty.’ I was really thinking
that she was inside all day breathing secondhand smoke
and saving the world. And she looked at me
for a long time, thoughtfully, and said,
‘Not really. She has lymphoma.’
I think that was the beginning of the end.
I wasn’t being callow, I just didn’t know.”


“Another night she said, ‘Do you know
what our countrymen are thinking about right now?
Football matches.’ ‘Games,’ I said. She shook her head.
‘The drones in Afghanistan? Yesterday they bombed a wedding.
It killed sixty people, eighteen children. I don’t know
how people live, I don’t know how
they get up in the morning.'”


“So she took the job in Harare and I got ready
to come back to Berkeley, and we said we’d be in touch
by e-mail and that I might come out in the summer
and we’d see how it went. The last night
I was the one who woke up. She was sleeping soundly,
her face adorably squinched up by the pillow,
a little saliva—the English word spittle came to mind—
a tiny filament of it connecting the corner of her mouth
to the pillow. She looked so peaceful.”


“In the last week we went to hear a friend
perform some music of Benjamin Britten.
I had been in the library finishing up, ploughing
through the back issues of The Criterion and noticing
again that neither Eliot nor any of the others
seemed to have had a clue to the coming horror.
She was sitting beside me and I looked at her hands
in her lap. Her beautiful hands. And I thought about
the way she was carrying the whole of the world’s violence
and cruelty in her body, or trying to, because
she thought the rest of us couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Our friend was bowing away, a series of high, sweet,
climbing and keening notes, and that line of Eliot’s
from The Wasteland came into my head:
‘This music crept by me upon the waters.'” 

the problem of describing trees :: robert hass

The aspen glitters in the wind
And that delights us.

The leaf flutters, turning,
Because that motion in the heat of August
Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.

The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.

It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.

Mountains, sky,
The aspen doing something in the wind.

sonnet :: robert hass

A man talking to his ex-wife on the phone.
He has loved her voice and listens with attention
to every modulation of its tone. Knowing
it intimately. Not knowing what he wants
from the sound of it, from the tendered civility.
He studies, out the window, the seed shapes
of the broken pods of ornamental trees.
The kind that grow in everyone’s garden, that no one
but horticulturists can name. Four arched chambers
of pale green, tiny vegetal proscenium arches,
a pair of black tapering seeds bedded in each chamber.
A wish geometry, miniature, Indian or Persian,
lovers or gods in their apartments. Outside, white,
patient animals, and tangled vines, and rain.

privilege of being :: robert hass

Many are making love. Up above, the angels
in the unshaken ether and crystal of human longing
are braiding one another’s hair, which is strawberry blond
and the texture of cold rivers. They glance
down from time to time at the awkward ecstasy—
it must look to them like featherless birds
splashing in the spring puddle of a bed—
and then one woman, she is about to come,
peels back the man’s shut eyelids and says,
look at me, and he does. Or is it the man
tugging the curtain rope in the dark theater?
Anyway, they do, they look at each other;
two beings with evolved eyes, rapacious,
startled, connected at the belly in an unbelievably sweet
lubricious glue, stare at each other,
and the angels are desolate. They hate it. They shudder pathetically
like lithographs of Victorian beggars
with perfect features and alabaster skin hawking rags
in the lewd alleys of the novel.
All of creation is offended by this distress.
It is like the keening sound the moon makes sometimes,
rising. The lovers especially cannot bear it,
it fills them with unspeakable sadness, so that
they close their eyes again and hold each other, each
feeling the mortal singularity of the body
they have enchanted out of death for an hour or so,
and one day, running at sunset, the woman says to the man,
I woke up feeling so sad this morning because I realized
that you could not, as much as I love you,
dear heart, cure my loneliness,

wherewith she touched his cheek to reassure him
that she did not mean to hurt him with this truth.
And the man is not hurt exactly,
he understands that his life has limits, that people
die young, fail at love,
fail of their ambitions. He runs beside her, he thinks
of the sadness they have gasped and crooned their way out of
coming, clutching each other with old, invented
forms of grace and clumsy gratitude, ready
to be alone again, or dissatisfied, or merely
companionable like the couples on the summer beach
reading magazine articles about intimacy between the sexes
to themselves, and to each other,
and to the immense, illiterate, consoling angels.

meditation at lagunitas :: 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.

Courtesy of D.H.

measure :: robert hass

Coppery light hesitates
again in the small-leaved

Japanese plum. Summer
and sunset, the peace
of the writing desk

and the habitual peace
of writing, these things
form an order I only

belong to in the idleness
of attention. Last light
rims the blue mountain

and I almost glimpse
what I was born to,
not so much in the sunlight

or the plum tree
as in the pulse
that forms these lines.