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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of two forthcoming books: This Much I Can Tell You (Black Lawrence Press) and a translation of Dante's Paradiso (Salmon Poetry). Black Lawrence also published his recent Not Alone in My Dancing. He is contributing editor for The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "Summer Snow" by Roert Hass

Summer Snow
Summer Snow
by Roert Hass

192 pages


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Robert Hass' new collection—his first in a decade—brings with it the notebook vibe of a poet reaching the middle of his seniority, though traces of the likable Boy Wonder persona, the floral shirt-wearing hiker, Basho-quoting, California-dreaming quester is always, you feel, looking over the shoulder of the veteran. By "notebook" I refer to Hass' practice of noting what he beholds as he passes, on foot, in the car, through seasons. It's a moving book, with all the traits of his best previous work: range, intelligence, curiosity, control, wit. In an interview, Alice Oswald noted that one of the things she admired about American poets was that they "have this extraordinary capacity to think within a poem." Summer Snow would be a case in point. Though some of the best poems have the slab look of un-stanzaed poems (like much of Jack Gilbert), they are in fact, nimble and conversational. Even so, the book opens under an elegiac cloud, which, while eventually dissipating, becomes the sustaining hue for the whole. And it is not just the mighty who come under review: Kunitz, Wilbur, Neruda, Šalamun, Carver, LeGuin, It is a collection through which we witness "the passing of our bodies and the resurrections," the latter being the poems themselves—those of the mentioned poets but also Robert Hass. One is, for example, a rich, imagined exchange with Czesław Miłosz, who seems to have been beamed down to weigh in on poetic issues (like metaphor) he must have failed to anatomize fully during his time on earth:

"In my religion, if we are going to starve,

We will starve on the pears of Cézanne and the apples of Chardin.
He squints a little. "In my religion metaphor makes us ache
Because things are, and are what they are, and perish."
—"An Argument about Poetics Imagined at Squaw Valley after a Midnight Walk under the Mountain"

In another exchange, this time with Eugenio Montale, Hass brings out the humor implicit in the cognoscenti's habit of making bobbleheads of modern European poets:

Eugenio Montale asked me if there was an American word
For sprezzatura, particularly with respect to poetry.
In rispetto de poesia, he said. And I said, Yes, in American
we call it "moose" and mentioned several poets,
Frank O'Hara among them, who were quite famous,
As fame goes in our sort of work, for their moose.
He wondered if there was an American expression
To convey the general concept of "Eugenio Montale."
And I said, Yes, we call it "George Seferis."

Modesty is good. So is his puckish remembrance of Modernism (remember Modernism?), "What the Modernists Wrote About: An Informal Survey." Take Stevens:

Wallace Stevens wrote about the Connecticut River
And an early winter snowfall in Hartford
And the way sexual magic dissipated in his life
And what his Pennsylvania Dutch mother would think of his pretty
And explicitly atheist poems....


And the nature of imagination, and something
About the fact that you can regard blackbirds
From several points of view.

Hass has a tender spot for the absurd, whether it's a discussion (with, again, Milosz) on the correct way to think about armpits in the nudes of Modigliani, on the wisdom(s) of participants in a conference on world peace ("Second day. Deep breath./ Professor Hwa: Civilization is a victory of persuasion over force."), on the logistics of a pregnant dog walker, or on the earnest, contained propulsion of young writers before a craft lecture ("the forward-leaning bodies of the young writers in that uncomfortable room"). Aware of how a shift in focus can cause plainness itself to come into absurd focus, Hass is also aware how words themselves take over the business of the eye, denying it sovereignty:

Driving into these mountains, I had to remind myself that they are not sacred beings or the visible emanations of some enormous unseen dower (unless I said they were, if you know what I mean), but bare rock eroding in the sun.

"The Archeology of Plenty"

The imagination doesn't have to take sides, and this fact poses a problem. At bottom you feel a moral basis underlying many of the poems, but its authority is always tenuous, its mutual sharing subject to many contingencies:

(All you have to do
Is reach into your heavy waking,
The metaphysical nausea that being in your life,
With its bearing and its strifes, its stiffs,
Its stuff, seems to have produced in you,
Reduced you to, and make something with a pleasing,
Ot teasing, ring to it, if you can't get rid of it,
Sing to it is all you have to do)

"All you have to do," of course, is the poet's tongue-in-cheek reminder that imagining is hard. Yet in a poem about a Syrian bombing ("After Xue Di"), he writes, "It's not as if nothing can be done. The imagination doesn't have to give up." The poem concludes, "There are ways of not quitting morally. From the beginning we knew to tend the dead." In "Los Angeles: An Analysis," he explains,"And I suppose that's why 'disappointment'/ Is such a useful and delicious word. And like all useful words/ cruel. Still, it doesn't mean the appointment wasn't kept." Another word might be "delicious," pointing to the fact that a sensuous poet is in the house. Over the years Hass' poems have gained traction by his refusal to disguise his aesthetic instincts (as if he could), and these instincts add a useful layer to his kit bag, where fancy, nature, memory, and ethical truing (quaint as that sounds) are already at hand. If writing poems is a Sisyphean task, as it seems to be for brainiacs and seniors alike, that task is belied by the ease and and often relaxed manner of presentation. The space separating the knotty compositor and the casual speaker can sometimes seem like a poetic demilitarized zone, but it is also one of Hass' properties. Of course he's serious at all points, but he's too intelligent to let the poems succumb to the tedium of gravity their subjects might otherwise find themselves entitled to. And herein lies a lesson.

The collection, with its generous length, also has the qualities of a logbook: attuned to environmental details, political weather, the force of relationships, and the movement across place and time. One poem in particular ("The Creech Notebook") records a trip from Berkeley by way of Bakersfield and Las Vegas with his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, to a military drone base in Nevada. Along the way the couple acquire a gang of companions and eventually stake out the installation, at which point the political motivations take on an old-school activist complexion, one friend reciting Emily Dickinson and William Wordsworth "to the morning air" at the busy, guarded gate of the base. "Would you folks mind telling me/ If you're planning to get arrested?" one guard asks. The poem then becomes a white paper on military drones ("The drones themselves are startling..."). Subsequently, the comrades decamp to the house of an activist Franciscan living in a trailer in the desert and lunch on Rice Krispies while they read poems. Hass relates, "He liked the idea/ Off getting busted for committing transubstantiation/ On government property." Surveying the bookcases, he finds Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Nanh, Toni Morrison, Mary Gordon, and a biography of Dorothy Day. Before they leave, his friend Janet reads Dylan Thomas' "Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged One Hundred." The journey is a pilgrimage of sorts: of old, if Kesey-esque allegiances, of the proximity of violent death to life, of contested authenticities in the poet's Western land.

Likewise, "Dancing," which precedes "The Creech Notebook," meditates on the evolution of America's and the world's worship of guns. The poem is a j'accuse in the form of a history lesson that begins with a familiar surmise:

The radio clicks on—it's poor swollen America,
Up already and busy selling the exhausting obligation
Of happiness while intermittently debating whether or not
A man who kills fifty people in five minutes
With an automatic weapon he has bought for the purpose
Is mentally ill. Or a terrorist. Or if terrorists
Are mentally ill.

The refrain "Must have been" secures the irony that it didn't have to be. After Chinese gunpowder ("an awful power, the odor/ Of ozone a god's breath"), we hurtle past Julius Ceasar, English cannons, Lombard cannons, Cortéz canons, gunships, the rise of rifles and machine guns, "aerial policing," and on to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, until we return to the Kalashnikov ("The weapon of European imperialism" and "a portable weapon a child can operate"). The poem ends in Orlando:

They were mostly young men, they were dancing in a club,
A spring night. The radio clicks on. Green fire. Blue fire.
The immense flocks of terrified birds still rising
In wave after wave above the waters in the dream time.

There is much to admire in Summer Snow. I am tempted to say that the appearance of the greats in his poems suggests that Hass has joined their ranks, and why not? Few write with more even grace about his matter, from the insignificant and particular to the important and generalizable. Few are as accessible in his asides, Mobius strip loops and sidebars or even-handed in his worldview (see his poem dedicated to Lyn Hejinian on the question of bounds and boundlessness in poetry). Neither a wild man crying in the desert, nor a cosmopolitan tap-dancing on the page, Hass has carved a middle way that is as effectual in its power to convince as any contemporary bard or poetry technician. And the work feels complete because he has made his purpose to be both at ease and engaged—or perhaps compact with the contradictions that arise, welts or not, his or others,' with every scratch of the pen.

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