Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review of '“… White of Forgetfulness, White of Safety”' by Robert Hass

I’m preparing for my final doctoral exam (big yippee-yay there) which is this week, and I have been looking for poems that not only feature free-associating narrators, but passionate ones as well. (In what I read at least, I find more speakers who embrace confusion than who embrace outright joy.) Here’s a Robert Hass poem that some don’t like because they feel the associations flit by too quickly, but I find that all the images are connected to an impassioned speaker.

“… White of Forgetfulness, White of Safety”

by Robert Hass from Time and Materials

My mother was burning in a closet.

Creek water wrinkling over stones.

Sister Damien, in fifth grade, loved teaching mathematics.

Her full white sleeve, when she wrote on the board,

Swayed like the slow movement of a hunting bird,

Egret in the tidal flats,

Swam paddling in a pond.

Let A equal the distance between x and y.

The doves in the desert,

Their cinnamon coverts when they flew.

People made arguments. They had reasons for their appetites.

A child could see it wasn’t true.

In the picture of the Last Supper on the classroom wall,

All the apostles had beautiful pastel robes,

Each one the color of a flavor of sherbet.

A line is the distance between two points.

A point is indivisible.

Not a statement of fact; a definition.

It took you a second to understand the difference,

And then you loved it, loved reason,

Moving as a swan moves in a mill stream.

I would not have betrayed the Lord

Before the cock crowed thrice,

But I was a child, what could I do

When they came for him?

Ticking heat, the scent of sage,

Of pennyroyal. The structure of every living thing

Was praying for rain.

The first three stanzas can appear disconnected on first read. Why are we moving from a mother burning in a closet, to creek water, and then to Sister Damien teaching mathematics? It all comes together when the speaker says that he had an epiphany in math class about how a point is not divisible. “Not a statement of fact; a definition. // It look you a second to understand the difference, / and then you loved it, loved reason…”

Here is the passion; Hass is explicitly saying that he loved something. No confusion, no evasion, outright: “And then you loved it.”

Fine, you might say. The speaker loves learning. But what are these first two stanzas doing? What’s the connection? Hass has taken away explicit transitions and simply makes the leaps without transitioning for us. For example, the speaker never delineates who is speaking or where we are; we simply move to a memory and then to image such as the line “Let A equal” where we have Sister Damien teaching math and the speaker then imagining “the doves in the desert.” All of this is free association, but also relates to how Hass considers image.

He writes that image for him is the “sensation of clarity and sensation of perceiving it.” In other words, an image is not only showing us a moment of clarity, but the moment when we receive that clarity. And I would add that when you first understand something, there is a sense of absence. Think of an impressionistic painting and the lines that distinguish water lily from water. If you try to pinpoint that place where the two separate, you will touch nothing—not the water nor the lily. Simply color. And I suppose that is what I mean by absence here. This sense of absence informs the stanzas as they move from one to the next without explicit transitions made for us.

This is a poem about “sensation of clarity and sensation of perceiving it,” and around those moments, we have an absence designated by the white space on the page. Well, now I fear I just offered a very overwrought reading. Let me simply say that clearly what we do have is an impassioned speaker who shares with us moments of insight. What precedes and follows are images associated with these moments of quiet epiphany presented without transitions—which is often the way epiphanies arrive.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review of "Cloud" by Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan, current U.S. Poet Laureate, is reading at my university next week. Known for her short lines (rarely no more than four words), slant and perfect rhymes that startle in a similar manner to an unexpected image, and avoidance of first-person, she is a poet who sets trends instead of following them. Here’s a new poem just published in this month’s issue of Poetry. (When doesn’t Kay Ryan have a poem in Poetry though?)

Cloud by Kay Ryan

A blue stain

creeps across

the deep pile

of the evergreens.

From inside the

forest it seems

like an interior

matter, something

wholly to do

with trees, a color

passed from one

to another, a


to which they

submit unflinchingly

like soldiers or

brave people

getting older.

Then the sun

comes back and

it’s totally over.

What we see here is fairly typical of Ryan’s work: compression, lasered focus, and an impressive ability to take on cargo in such a small amount of space. (This idea of cargo—what some might call a deepening—is something I think Jack Gilbert does better than anyone, but that will be another blog). In this poem, the deepening for me occurs with the lines “brave people / getting older.” Once I read that simile about aging, the description of the cloud takes on greater depth. In fact, this simile informs the entire poem as I re-read and associate the idea of aging to many other lines: “passed from one / to another;” “a requirement / to which they / submit unflinchingly;” “it seems like an interior matter;” and of course the ending line of “it’s totally over.” I think I just quoted the entire poem—which is my point. Nothing is wasted here. Nothing is ever wasted with her. Here is another example of a poem that takes on cargo.

The Niagara River

(from Kay Ryan’s collection The Niagara River)

As though

the river were

a floor, we position

our table and chairs

upon it, eat, and

have conversation.

As it moves along,

we notice—as

calmly as though

dining room paintings

were being replaced—

the changing scenes

along the shore. We

do know, we do

know this is the

Niagara River but

it is hard to remember

what that means.

This is one of my favorite poems by Kay Ryan. Sometimes short poems are like the quiet kid reading in the corner of your classroom. You are aware of the kid’s presence, but you can’t say exactly what he’s doing. With all the other loud demands, the quiet ones can get overlooked. “The Niagara River,” however, does not allow this. It’s eerie from the beginning with its factual set-up of a group dining on a boat but delivered in a way that makes this everyday experience sound surreal. And then we have the repetition of “we do know,” and the longing of the “o” sounds that surround like an incantation. But the repentant incantation does not end with a clear epiphany—which is part of this poem’s power. What does the group know? Well, that’s not explicitly stated which becomes part of the poem’s tension. What we are left with is a sense of struggle.

I would like to make a second (and third) link between Kay Ryan and Jack Gilbert’s work. One link is tone—which is not devoid of emotion, but distanced to allow for clarity and insight. And this is important because often what Gilbert and Ryan discuss are emotions, yet these emotions are latched onto a specific object, moment, place, or image.

Also, Kay Ryan’s poems often move in a similar way to Jack Gilbert’s poems. These two poets will often use the rhetorical movements of a sonnet. We will have the introduction of the problem/issue, followed by the complication, sometimes another complication, and a turn that happens off the page that then allows for the conclusion. Let me divide up “The Niagara River” to show this:

{As though

the river were

a floor, we position

our table and chairs

upon it, eat, and

have conversation.} .......INTRODUCTION OF ISSUE

{As it moves along,

we notice—as

calmly as though

dining room paintings

were being replaced—

the changing scenes

along the shore.} {We ......COMPLICATION

do know, we do

know this is the

Niagara River} {but} ......MORE COMPLICATION followed by TURN

{it is hard to remember

what that means.} .............CONCLUSION

Two other great links that describe her background and her craft include: