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.

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