by syaffolee

The Usual Turn of Phrase

Perhaps an expert explicator can glean the genius of the Pulitzer winning Time and Materials by Robert Hass, but this collection of poems–at least to me–reads like the introspective doodlings of an aging baby boomer. I found myself asking, often, why? Some of the poems were amusing or poignant, but none of them rose above the point of slightly better than ordinary. If these words were written by anyone other than Hass, would they have gotten a Pulitzer? (Probably not.) It’s an eclectic mix of old codgerism with a bit of get-off-my-lawn-darn-kids! vibe, preoccupation with sex, name dropping, memories of family, and political poems.

The collection starts off with a very short poem, “Iowa, January”, with two pseudo-cryptic lines that would probably make Frost turn in his grave. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any clever turns of phrase with lucid imagery. I liked this bit from “Etymology”:

Poor language, poor theory
Of language. The shards of skull
In the Egyptian museum looked like maps of the wind-eroded
Canyon labyrinths from which,
Standing on the verge
In the yellow of a dwindling fall, you hear
Echo and re-echo the cries of terns
Fishing the worked silver of a rapids.

And there are times when the simple can be evocative. Example from “Poem with a Cucumber in It”

A hint of salt, something like starch, something
Like an attar of grasses or green leaves
On the tongue is the tongue
And the cucumber
Evolving toward each other

I’d have to say that attar is now my favorite word.

Some of the poems, admittedly, made me giggle because they were permeated by a grumpy old man narrator. In “The Problem of Describing Color” and “The Problem of Describing Trees” I could easily imagine a frustrated artist trying to explain his perceptions to a literal-minded audience more concerned about getting the right hex code to match a photograph to a website layout. The nerd in me positively squealed when I read “State of the Planet”; although commissioned and somewhat clunky at times, it had an entire stanza about GFP (green fluorescent protein) with an intriguing insight: “In the dark the creatures give off greenish light./Their bodies must by very strange to them.” On the other hand, when the subjects turn more seriously to Hass’s family–such as “The World as Will and Representation” about his alcoholic mother–there’s something quite stark and earnest about the allusions.

The weakest part of the collection are the political poems. Unless Hass was aiming to make the reader feel numb and inundated, the run-on prose doesn’t work. Maybe politics and poetry inherently don’t mix–but I think it’s totally possible to turn the music of words into passionate rhetoric. However, Hass’s “I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name Is Dimitri”, “Bush’s War”, and “On Visiting the DMZ at Panmunjom: A Haibun” doesn’t have this energy. Instead, they’re like monotone interruptions in an already snore-inducing lecture.

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