October 16, 2007KR BlogReading

Writing About War

Perhaps the biggest departure in Time and Materials from Robert Hass’ earlier work is his choice to speak topically on major contemporary American (and world) political issues–from war, to climate change, to World Bank projects. One wonders if this sea change springs from Hass’ public role as poetic ambassador, as both a former laureate and a highly esteemed poet. And while there are still moments in the book that feel vestiges of Field Guide or Praise–from an era when he was a less public poet–there certainly are moments here that venture boldly into a political realm, a realm that seems entirely different than one populated by tanagers or blackberries.

Or is it? That question is the crucible I grind the these thoughts in. In “A Poem,” Hass, in a style befitting all the work we have from him to date, clearly observes the the policy of saturation bombing in the Vietnamese countryside during the Vietnam war. Much of the poem feels journalistic, particularly the use of statistics:

In the end, there were more bombs dropped on the villages and forests of South Vietnam than were dropped in all of World War II. The estimated Vietnamese casualties during the war is two million….In the first twenty years of the twentieth century 90 percent of war deaths were the deaths of combatants. In the last twenty years of the twentieth century 90 percent of war deaths were deaths of civilians. There are imaginable responses to these facts.

What I find most earnest in these lines is something more meta-poetical than not. He’s using the factual details here the same way, and in the same style, as the descriptive details that often characterize his other work. The political frustration in the last line of the excerpt above is transparent. But it also holds the kernel of a linguistic frustration; why do these facts not move us the way, say, this does:

Poor Nietzsche in Turin, eating sausage his mother
Mails to him from Basel. A rented room,
A small square window framing August clouds
Above the mountain. Brooding on the form
Of things: the dangling spur
Of an Alpine columbine, winter-tortured trunks
Of cedar in the summer sun, the warp in the aspen’s trunk
Where it torqued up through the snowpack.

We would also do well to consider the form of things, from a rented room or not. On the whole, Hass’ new book seems preoccupied with a call to this mental action, in a way–and suggests that concentration on both the raw data of mismanaged foreign policy, and that of a particular and peculiar natural occurrence (even if only made so by a focused attention) are equally worthy of our poetic attentions, if not our political actions, to either save or defend.

It is the nonchalance of no-attention that Hass, by his subject choices, seems unwilling to permit.

His poem “Bush’s War” begins this way:

I typed the brief phrase, “Bush’s War,”
At the top of a sheet of white paper,
Having some dim intuition of a poem
Made luminous by reason that would,
Though I did not have them at hand,
Set the facts out in an orderly way.

What follows is a truncated history of atrocity in the twentieth century–and it is clear that there is no orderly way to set out the facts. Hass pounds this spike through the poem by the way he plays fast and loose with time and space. There is no lyricism in the disorder–or maybe an entirely different type of lyricism–but there is material for a poem. And Hass suggests that we must use our time to make these poems, too.

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