Robert Hass was born in San Francisco in 1941. His books of poetry include Sun Under Wood: New Poems (Ecco Press, 1996); Human Wishes (1989), Praise (1979), and Field Guide (1973), which was selected by Stanley Kunitz for the Yale Younger Poets Series. He has also co-translated several volumes of poetry with Czeslaw Milosz, most recently Facing the River (1995), and is author or editor of several other collections of essays and translation, including The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (1994), and Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (1984). He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997 and is currently a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. He lives in California and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
The Apple Trees at Olema
They are walking in the woods along the coast and in a grassy meadow, wasting, they come upon two old neglected apple trees. Moss thickened every bough and the wood of the limbs looked rotten but the trees were wild with blossom and a green fire of small new leaves flickered even on the deadest branches. Blue-eyes, poppies, a scattering of lupine flecked the meadow, and an intricate, leopard-spotted leaf-green flower whose name they didn’t know. Trout lily, he said; she said, adder’s-tongue. She is shaken by the raw, white, backlit flaring of the apple blossoms. He is exultant, as if some thing he felt were verified, and looks to her to mirror his response. If it is afternoon, a thin moon of my own dismay fades like a scar in the sky to the east of them. He could be knocking wildly at a closed door in a dream. She thinks, meanwhile, that moss resembles seaweed drying lightly on a dock. Torn flesh, it was the repetitive torn flesh of appetite in the cold white blossoms that had startled her. Now they seem tender and where she was repelled she takes the measure of the trees and lets them in. But he no longer has the apple trees. This is as sad or happy as the tide, going out or coming in, at sunset. The light catching in the spray that spumes up on the reef is the color of the lesser finch they notice now flashing dull gold in the light above the field. They admire the bird together, it draws them closer, and they start to walk again. A small boy wanders corridors of a hotel that way. Behind one door, a maid. Behind another one, a man in striped pajamas shaving. He holds the number of his room close to the center of his mind gravely and delicately, as if it were the key, and then he wanders among strangers all he wants.
When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in the gray rain, in Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty, he fell straight as a pine, he fell as Ajax fell in Homer in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge the woodsman returned for two days to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing and on the third day he brought his uncle. They stacked logs in the resinous air, hacking the small limbs off, tying those bundles separately. The slabs near the root were quartered and still they were awkwardly large; the logs from midtree they halved: ten bundles and four great piles of fragrant wood, moons and quarter moons and half moons ridged by the saw’s tooth. The woodsman and the old man his uncle are standing in midforest on a floor of pine silt and spring mud. They have stopped working because they are tired and because I have imagined no pack animal or primitive wagon. They are too canny to call in neighbors and come home with a few logs after three days’ work. They are waiting for me to do something or for the overseer of the Great Lord to come and arrest them. How patient they are! The old man smokes a pipe and spits. The young man is thinking he would be rich if he were already rich and had a mule. Ten days of hauling and on the seventh day they’ll probably be caught, go home empty-handed or worse. I don’t know whether they’re Japanese or Mycenaean and there’s nothing I can do. The path from here to that village is not translated. A hero, dying, gives off stillness to the air. A man and a woman walk from the movies to the house in the silence of separate fidelities. There are limits to imagination.