Thomas Festa reviews Summer Snow, poetry by Robert Hass

Summer Snow by Robert Haas/ New York:  Ecco, 2020

photo: Marin Independent Journal

            A new collection of poems by Robert Hass, former US Poet Laureate, always occasions a particular mood of reflection. Ever since his first volume, Field Guide, selected for the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1973, each volume of carefully collected lyrics has appeared organically, many poems cool and smooth as slowly polished river rocks, products of “what might be thought of as the basis of an ecopoetics, a courtesy,” as he puts it in the final poem of the new collection. Hass is one of those rare poets whose work speaks directly to the moment without losing its roots in deeper ecologies of feeling, more lasting conviction. And his contemporaneity rarely feels cheap or easily earned. I write these words in February of 2020 as rain pours down outside my window. He has a sequence of poems called “February Notebook:  The Rains,” which features a short lyric, “The Usefulness of Sitting Still”:  “The old maple chair by the window / (even in the Trump administration) / gleams a little in the winter sun.” How one feels about that parenthesis will likely predict how far a reader is willing to go to meet Hass in our present; the modest, consoling looseness of “gleams a little” might just win some doubters back. 

            From the title onward, Hass confronts the seeming paradoxes of our time, many of which arise from the catastrophe of global climate change, or the self-consciousness of the Anthropocene. Bearing witness to trauma in the transformation of a beloved landscape, poetry of place has come to seem inevitable. But such post-pastoral moments also bear witness to the ravages of time in human life, as Hass shows intimately, for example, in “Dream in the Summer of my Seventy-Third Year.” After merging with a group of mourners—“getting newly accustomed to the frequency of memorial services,” he notes in another new poem, “Second Person”—the poet observes, “It is getting dark and a thick snow / Begins to fall in a sudden flurry and then stops / Abruptly, which gives the world an expectant air….” For “summer snow” seems one of those reversible metaphors, a trope that gains richness by being susceptible to inversion and duplicity. The time is out of joint because of climate change, but the “winter” poems of old age may astonish when they unseasonably fall in the Dog Days of global warming.

            Like the “kigo” or seasonal phrase in haiku, the specificity of Hass’s California landscapes creates an enlivening distortion that brings much to the poetry. In “Patches of Snow in July,” the city folk skiing on the Fourth, for instance, exhibit a rather banal and entitled reaction to climate crisis, whereas the nonhuman world has something far more interesting to say:  “Ten days later, the tips of the pines seemed to be on fire with the neon green of new growth, and along the Truckee River wildflowers had the raw look of early spring, as if they were astonished at themselves for having forced the dead earth.” The awkward juxtaposition of blithe skiers and wildflower shoots suggests how, time and again, irony gives way in this collection to hard earned profundity. “We must unhumanize our views a little,” as the great poet of the California coast, Robinson Jeffers, recognized. (Hass sensitively edited and thoughtfully introduced a selection of Jeffers; included a poem imagining his return in his first book; and name checks him in one of the new volume’s many modernist roll calls.) Not surprisingly, the deeper insights in Summer Snow likewise emerge as the wisdom of the nonhuman world, as in “Smoking in Heaven,” where observation of a group of young poets puffing on cigarettes outside a reading improbably leads to a grand conclusion, a ten line sentence in which “couples are walking by the sea” and “see a pack of feral goats” whose “inhuman eyes” awaken the philosophical musings of the poet:

As if time and eternity were the wrong ideas altogether

And the women would have come in with their Greek masks on

To walk the shoreline and dance what fate is. 

The “feral goats” trigger an awareness of another softly mythic dimension, a mild pastoral or bucolic setting (he-goat in Ancient Greek is tragos) lightly ironized by the poet’s concession that he is imagining all of this when he says “As if,” where “if,” in his phrase from “Spring Drawing,” “has become habitable space, lived in beyond wishing.” Hass hints at the sacrificial rite or prize at the origin of tragedy, victims and Fates, even as played out by women in “Greek masks” strolling along a Northern California coast and revealing the nature of destiny in their dance. 

            The lovely narrative elegy for Ursula Le Guin, “Silence,” ends in what many will take to be a more hushed dramatic aside:  “(They absorbed the sweetness and the terror of it, / but did not join in the humming which they felt, / their vow aside, belonged to her and to her stillness.)” Hass has always been a poet of disavowal, committed to the bittersweet realization of the foreclosure of one possibility producing another:  “There are limits to imagination,” he famously writes in the final line of “Heroic Simile” from Praise (1979), where a couple’s inability to speak past “the silence of separate fidelities” drives home the difference between their subjective realities. The two terms under comparison in the “Heroic Simile” of the title are mediated, translated, and never quite parallel, though in art we are perhaps inclined to idealize to the point where we collapse representation into reality, a point Hass drives home in the line about Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which the man and woman have gone to see at the movie theater. In a brilliant and mind-bending zeugma (a figure of speech made by yoking two things with a word to which each relates differently), the swordsman falls “in Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty.” It is as if we have suspended disbelief midline. The setting of the film suggests the virtual reality of the poem’s developing simile when a Homeric hero falls “as a pine,” which in turn has been felled by woodsmen in what seems a premodern Japanese landscape. However heroic the attempt at rendering likeness, Hass seems to be saying, the comparison of Homer’s Ajax to the swordsman in Kurosawa’s film turns out to be much simpler than the analogy between one person’s innermost longing and another’s. Thus, the device of the epic simile becomes the wellspring of Hass’s brooding meditation on what cannot be bridged between intimate couples, in which, ironically, radical cultural difference (Ancient Mycenaean and Tokugawa Shogunate Japanese) may be transcended. Likewise, in “The Problem of Describing Trees,” from Time and Materials (2007), resignation to the fact that “There are limits to saying” leads the poet to throw up his hands at the futility of unmediated expression, paradoxically embodied in the quirky iambic pentameter, “Aspens doing something in the wind.”

            Summer Snow is mellower, chattier, more diffuse, than the Hass books that matter most to me as a reader—Praise (1979) and Human Wishes (1988)—though he’d found the direction his mature style would take in the longer poems, “Shame:  An Aria,” “Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer,” and “Interrupted Meditation,” collected in Sun Under Wood (1996). It is well worth hearing him read aloud from these, as in the “Lunch Poems” reading at Berkeley on YouTube and Hass’s Lannan Foundation reading and interview with Jorie Graham. Hass at his best provokes meditative wandering through acute natural and psychological observation and, at the same time, epigrammatic incisiveness:  “What if I did not mention death to get started” (“Thin Air,” Human Wishes); “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking” (“Meditation at Lagunitas,” Praise). It may well be “the early part of late,” as he says in the characteristically majestic “Summer Storm in the Sierra,” where a stand of pines, “inkier green than an hour ago,” ignores the vagaries of a “princeling wind.” The massive dignity of the trees when compared to the ever-shifting wind suggests that they transcend its ephemerality, rocking and waving gently “as if to acknowledge an embassy / from some inconsequential vassal state.” But the lofty pines only seem invulnerable, perhaps a bit more like us than we care to admit, “being absolute masters / of their weather, but not the climate.” If Hass’s new collection contains “the poems of our climate,” to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, then Summer Snow also acknowledges with Stevens that “The imperfect is our paradise.” A measure of acceptance is to be expected in a mind of winter, and Robert Hass’s latest poems at their best embrace the imperfection of our present. “February is the month of purification,” as Hass reminds us in another short poem, calling back to the etymology of the month’s name in the Roman festival held on the fifteenth of the month. Hass evokes the ancient celebration elegiacally in Summer Snow even as he owns its impermanence:  “We don’t have that festival.

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Robert Haas is the former U. S. Poet Laureate and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

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Thomas Festa is Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz. He is the author of a study of John Milton, The End of Learning (2006), and two dozen scholarly articles, mainly on early modern English literature. Co-editor of four anthologies, he is currently at work on a study of the late W.S. Merwin’s poetry as well as his own original poems and translations.

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