Time and Materials
by Robert Hass
Ecco Press 2007
Reviewed by Matthew Yeager
All that is Happening
Few recent volumes of poetry have arrived to as much anticipation as Robert Hass’s fifth, Time and Materials. It’s his own doing. Hass is a heavyweight, a former laureate, and nearly twelve years have come and gone since he put out Sun Under Wood. With that much time (and is it really that much time?), an expectation mounts in the reader – so unfair to the writer – for a masterpiece, or at least a relative one. As human beings, (recollect both Hamlet’s address to the players and Eliot’s indictment of Hamlet), we crave that things be commensurate – be it expressed emotion with a given dramatic situation, time spent with product quality, punishment with crime, or simply “what goes in” with “what comes out.” This is why cleaning an apartment is such a predictable, reproducible pleasure: if I devote two hours to the task, I know my apartment will improve half as much as it would were I to sink four hours into it. On the flip side, it also explains why making art is frustrating to the point where frustration must be elevated to an ideal if one is to have some satisfaction. Whole mornings can disappear changing an “a” to a “the,” and the unfortunate fact of the medium of poetry, as all know, is that the finished products tend to veil the true process.
I feel obligated, before I begin, to confess that no poet’s work and world-view have affected me so much those of Robert Hass. Of course, like any first love, logic of position had a good deal to do with this affection. I first encountered him five years ago, as a 22 year old undergraduate, new to poetry. I’d never seen such a Thanksgiving table of sensuous life. Over the next two years, I carried Sun Under Wood around with me were it a security blanket. On several occasions my relationship to the volume even engendered a thought that between the years of 2002 and 2004, no single human had read this one book more than I had. (These sorts of thoughts are dizzyingly pleasurable.) I’d also become visibly angry if anyone had a dismissive word to say about him. “Look at this!” I’d respond, jabbing my finger into a page. “Just look at what he does here!”
I can still hear the slow sound of the surf
of my breath drawing in.
I still think these lines are majestic. Perhaps with exception of “I have passed by the watchman on his beat / and dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain” (from Frost’s “Acquainted With the Night”), I cannot think of a line break that achieves such a startling mimesis. Over the course of the first of these lines, the reader’s breath, word by word, like a string of knotted kerchiefs being pulled out a sleeve, is taken out of him. One must physically draw a breath before uttering “of my breath drawing in.” It also teaches you what to read for. Much like a curiously-positioned accent mark in a poem by Berryman, Hass’s effect locates his poetry in the oral, at the speed of the ear. (In my opinion, much like vinyl records, poems have two basic speeds – eye speed and ear speed – and playing a poem at the wrong speed leads to distortion.) And I do think the ear is the best way to process Hass, although he certainly does work on a page. His formal ability to fold a complete, multi-clause sentence over five, six, seven lines (building and releasing tension, delaying pertinent information skillfully as Cicero in his periodic sentences) reminds me – how should I phrase this? – of attempting to re-fold shirts I’ve tried on in clothing stores. “How on earth,” I always think, moments before shuffling away from my fat, clumsy effort, “do these shop girls and shop boys do this?”
So anyhow, on my first trip through Time and Materials (though I’d girded myself against unrealistic expectations), I was surprised – and a little saddened – by how much of the language I felt like I’d seen before. I’m not talking about those fingerprints of phrasing and movement that one would file under “style.” And while not as distinct as, say, Lichtenstein’s Ben-day dots, Hass does have his stylistic signatures – most notably his grouting of statements with haiku-worthy everyday images (beach towels drying by moonlight on fences, gaps in people’s teeth, stones and shells on a windowsill). He also has his go-to subjects – the limits of language and imagination, the challenge of autobiography, the California wilderness, the literary tradition of Eastern Europe (especially Russia), etymology, Catholicism, sexual love. It would be nonsensical to demand of him a complete upheaval. It’d be like asking Egon Schiele to paint cows and barns. For instance, in no contemporary poet are the emotions of post-coital lovers drawn more movingly, more realistically, than in Hass. When I meet a “he” and a “she” towards the beginning of one of his longer poems, I immediately page ahead to see how much longer they’re going to exist. It’s a fine feeling like waking up before your alarm, and measuring how much sleep you have left – the longer the poem, the happier I am. There’s simply that much line-by-line pleasure.
No, what I’m talking about is a line like “it is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us,” which appears in “The Problem of Describing Trees.” In his previous volume, in a poem entitled “Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer,” Hass wrote this line: “it is good sometimes that poetry should disenchant us.” Although I consoled myself that it wasn’t an exact facsimile – the Time and Materials version is more colloquial – I could hardly believe my eyes. What bothered me wasn’t that this line was recycled, but the fact that the gesture (and others like it) doesn’t enter into the expressed subject matter of the poem. Surely the poet knows he has written this line before. In all probability, it’s a line that pops into his head with regularity and has accrued, with the years, a personal significance. So why not interject and write the true poem? Why not tell us about what the line means to him, what sorts of situations call it to mind? Why not talk about that voice in his head that tells him, “Robert, tempting as it is, you can’t put these words in every poem, just as you couldn’t, as a child, wear your favorite sweater every day, but I will allow you to put it in here.” This isn’t a book like Berrigan’s Sonnets, where the overarching form has everything to do with cutting apart and re-configuring existing poems; in Berrigan the bells of recognition in the reader’s mind constitute a music that is, in fact, the poem. Hass’s work functions much differently; to work, it requires fresh language at every turn. And that’s a very high bar.
Of course, demanding a comment from him is only to hold him to his own standards; the man’s consciousness is vast, it’s “vast-vast,” and though his idea of the shorter lyric doesn’t admit much for it, he’s adept in longer pieces at overhearing himself, at reading the reader’s mind. This is why his longer pieces have such a sense of intimacy. He’s responding to you. He’s talking to you. In “I am your Waiter Tonight and my Name is Dimitri,” he addends a gorgeous, fourteen-line parenthetical phrase with:
I frankly admit the syntax
of that sentence, like the intestines slithering from the hands
of the startled boys clutching their belly wounds
at the Somme, has escaped my grip. I step over it
gingerly. Where were we?
This is not easy in poetry. Unlike stand-up comedy, or any art where one has the instantaneous mirror of a present, responsive audience, a poet’s readers are wholly in the poet’s head.
On a second reading, I admit I liked Time and Materials more. There are even two or three poems that I love. Perhaps, with more readings, I’ll like the whole more and more. As a reader, I am personally not all that interested in what it is I feel in the midst of reading a poem. Scratch that. As a reader of poetry, I’m somewhat more interested in what comes after, how my own reality in the subsequent hours, days, and months is filtered to me through a particular poet’s poetry, in those subtle changes it undergoes, as if a different colored light-bulb were screwed into a fixture.
If one is looking in Hass for Hass, for a moment where he reveals, like a ship at sea radioing its whereabouts to shore, the exact positioning of his heart in regard to his world, one can find it in Time and Materials’ title poem. He writes:
The object of this poem is to report a theft,
In progress, of everything
That is not these words,
And their disposition on the page.
The phrasing of these lines has a wryness to me, a spread tail-feathers of intelligence that I’m not sure I like, but that’s not important. What’s important is the content. When I read them, they called to mind an earlier poem of his entitled “Our Lady of the Snows.” In this poem, one of his best, about his mother’s battles with alcoholism, Hass reflects on the experience of sneaking into a church as a child and bargaining with a statue for his mother’s recovery. After establishing the scene (and it’s a moving one), he makes a surprising turn:
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,
What is peculiar to Hass’s being-in-the-world is how unusually conscious he is of all that is happening outside his given moment, of all that ends up excluded when he focuses. The burden he feels is the abundance of reality, the fact that there is always both a forest and trees (and trees and more trees). When one pages through one’s mental autobiography – particularly in a support-group or a shrink’s office – there is that tendency to highlight those moments when joy or melancholy is at its most acute. The danger is that one will then substitute an inventory of those highlighted passages for the whole, thus diminishing and misrepresenting the whole. Likewise, when one writes this thing the obvious next question is “what about that thing?” And what about every single thing? The crisis that arises is a crisis of limits, and I think this informs a great deal of his work. To his own imagination (or my sense of it), writing is not so much an act of creation, as it is for someone like Stevens, but an act of re-creation. He dwells, mentally, in an inner-world equal in detail and history to the outer world. As this is the case, certain items are bound to not get the play he’d like to give them. Probably he is too hard on himself as a result. He shouldn’t be.
The best poems in the volume: “The Dry Mountain Air,” “After the Winds,” “For Czeslaw Milosz in Krakow,” “Then Time.”