Robert Hass: Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005
Ecco Press, 2007
Hass has inspired a certain amount of controversy in his recent work, the vortex of it being the publication of “Bush’s War” in the American Poetry Review in March, 2006. The poem was chosen by Heather McHugh for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2007, but not everyone is convinced that the poem constitutes Hass’s best. Time and Materials, though more heavily political than his last book, has some strong work that deserves not to be eclipsed by polemic.
From a casual glance at Time and Materials, which won the National Book Award in November, one gets the sense that this is a collection centered on a particular timeframe rather than a unifying literary concept. Hass, currently the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, served as United States Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997 and his weekly column in the Washington Post has recently appeared in book form, Now and Then: The Poet’s Choice Columns 1997-2000 (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007). Some of the topics touched on in Time and Materials have been seen in earlier books of his, such as his mother’s alcoholism (“The World as Will and Representation”), which figured greatly in Sun Under Wood, as well as the difficulties of the writer to adequately present what is seen and felt (“The Problem of Describing Color” and “The Problem of Describing Trees”). Much here, actually, is an exploration on how to write and what to write about. This is done in painterly fashion in the most successful poems here, not only in terms of image and color, but also in their response to artwork. In “Art and Life” Vermeer’s Woman Pouring Milk is broken down into its individual components of cloth and pigment: “Ash and ash and chalky ash—is the stickiness of paint/ Adhering to the woven flax of the canvas, here/ Is the faithfulness of paint on paint on paint.” It is this layering that inhabits the best poems here, whether of paint or meaning or, as Hass writes in the title poem, time itself; “To make layers,/ As if they were a steadiness of days.”
It is interesting that 2001 serves as the arithmetical hyphen in the middle of the range of years found in the title. There is no indication that the poems in this collection are chronologically arranged, but as with the years that followed September 2001, the latter half of Time and Materials is preoccupied with the rise (or descent) of politics, the busting out of war, and war profiteering. This can be pretty shaky ground and has been the springboard for much well-intentioned—if inconsistently good—poetry. A casual glance at a title like “Bush’s War,” would certainly give a reader a measure of concern. Hass steers clear of bombast and banner-waving, moving instead away from the headlines to the internal, to a walk in Berlin at dusk; a realization that “it is a trick of the mind/ That the past seems just ahead of us, / As if we were being shunted there/ in the surge of a rattling funicular.” This sense of History repeating is arresting, but the political poetry here can verge on oversimplification—“Why do we do it? Certainly there’s a rage/ To injure what’s injured us. Wars/ Are always pitched to us that way.” Such acts indicate a “taste for power/ That amounts to contempt for the body.” The poem ends chillingly with Goethe: “Warte nur, bald ruhest du auch. Just wait./ You will be quiet soon enough.” The speaker in “A Poem” gets lost in comparisons of the Iraq war to Vietnam. In some instances, directness pulls through, as in “Ezra Pound’s Position” which expands the earlier poet’s indictment of world finance found in the Cantos, updating it with Halliburton and other foreign interests and the sad impacts of their involvement.
In the face of bleak prospects, in the face of war, Hass has wonderful moments of great beauty. Hass holds firm in the faith of the written word’s importance—the preoccupation with being able to get it right, either in describing the red of a flitting cardinal or the aspen “doing something” (what is it?) in the wind. It is this faith that becomes the greatest hope of those who “never accepted the cruelty in the frame/ Of things, brooded on your century, and God the Monster,/ And the smell of summer grasses in the world/ That can hardly be named or remembered/ Past the moment of our wading through them,/ And the world’s poor salvation in the word.” It is here and not in the political arguments, that we see Hass’s greatest success.