Lyrics in Search of an Allegory: On Three Recent Books from Rachel Hadas

November 25, 2022   •   By Sunil Iyengar

Pandemic Almanac

Rachel Hadas

Piece by Piece: Selected Prose

Rachel Hadas

Love and Dread

Rachel Hadas

IN RACHEL HADAS’S new collection, Pandemic Almanac, her journal of a plague year-and-a-half, she references bees in two consecutive poems. In each case, the word “zoom” hovers nearby — first as a noun, then as a verb. Both scenes are effusively pastoral, though, as with the best of Hadas (in prose and poems alike), a striking image or metaphor lands at the right time, relieving the pressure of blunt exposition.

In the first poem, “Bouncing Bet” (the name of a wildflower), Hadas gives a partial list of her parents’ friends and neighbors — including F. D. Reeve, the poet and father of actor Christopher — before considering that all have departed, some forever. Ironically, one reason for Hadas’s return to the Vermont of her childhood is to fend off extinction.

And now again it is July.
The Bouncing Bet’s in bloom today.
We saw the lilac’s bloom in May —
we came up earlier this spring
and will stay later into fall
now that the pandemic’s come,
draping the country with its pall,
darkening the world. Still, everywhere
flowers are blooming in the sun.
Bees in the bee balm buzz and hum.
I was reminded by my dream
(Bouncing Bet in a rose-pink dawn):
these flowers will be here when we’re gone.

The poem consists of tetrameter lines, rhymed irregularly. The idiom is conversational, the theme classical, as if Horace were transplanted into a COVID-19 lockdown — “these flowers will be here when we’re gone.” The poem ends by lauding the overlooked:

The things we know but do not say,
so that we forget we know,
so that we know and do not know —
things we ignore from day to day
until a waft of fragrance, hum
and low-tech zoom of bumblebee
and ruffled flowers, pink and white […]
warn us: Remember. Get it right.
We will be here. You will not.

The numbing word-repetition in the first four lines, to express a fairly straightforward meaning, is redeemed in part by the “low-tech zoom of bumblebee,” which, if not as memorable as John Crowe Ransom’s “transmogrifying bee” (from his much-anthologized “Janet Waking”), is nonetheless a keeper. Prior to the pandemic, one might have read the line, and the “ruffled flowers” that follow, as close-up observation (as through a “zoom” lens) of a constant revving for flight, and of a disturbance in its wake. (A comparison might be made with a phrase that Thomas Hardy, incidentally one of Ransom’s heroes, minted in “A Darkling Thrush” when sketching the bird’s movement: a “blast-beruffled plume.”) Yet in the COVID-19 era, it is not fanciful to contrast nature’s “low-tech zoom” with the banality of a video conferencing platform; the next poem neatly juxtaposes those ideas.

Titled “Zoom and Zoom,” it uses a ballad stanza with slant-rhyme line endings that conform to an ABBA scheme. The poem exposes the drab milieu of online webinars and breakout rooms in which Hadas, as a teaching poet, must participate while in rural Vermont. Hadas shuts off the screen and quits abruptly, again finding solace outdoors, as hummingbirds “zoom in and out of the bee balm” — where “bee balm” is the name of a flower, and not an insect’s secretion.

Outcome. Assessment. Canvas. Zoom.
So many points for this or that.
Give them a prompt. Or let them chat.
Five minutes in a breakout room.
But I am breaking out of there:
I leave the meeting, blank the screen,
that tiny smudgy windowpane,
and flee the confines of my square.

Whether or not her retreat from the virtual classroom was final — or, as we suspect, only temporary, serving a dramatic function in a brief lyric — Hadas has proved a busy bee. Apart from Pandemic Almanac, she has published within the past two years another collection of poems, Love and Dread, and Piece by Piece: Selected Prose. Reading the three together, one sees an elaboration of concerns that appear in muted form in the two examples quoted above.

Mortality and modes of departure, to be sure, are preoccupations for any poet. For Hadas, who teaches a “Literature and Medicine” course at Columbia University — and who in 2011 published Strange Relation, a memoir about losing her second husband, the music professor and composer George Edwards, to early-onset dementia — the prospect of death invites questions not only about which parts of one’s identity will remain in the physical world, but which parts one chooses willfully to forsake. In “Piece by Piece,” the poem that lends its title to her prose collection, she asks:

For the time left, what do I need?
What to take? What not to take?
Little by little, page by page,
let me give myself away.
Each addition to one’s age
asks for subtraction. It is time
to be packing. Travel light.
What is the final appetite?
What is there I will not let go?

As the gateway to a series of personal and literary essays, where family anecdotes nestle with classical allusions in a kind of mutually reinforcing mythology, “Piece by Piece” acquires greater force than it would as a stand-alone poem. It otherwise has a spindrift quality, placing the burden of expression either on pseudo-gnomic statements (“We’ve heard about the art of losing; / passing on is also choosing. / Things are in motion, fast or slow […] / Holding on makes nothing stay”) or on reportage about her present whereabouts (“This is Vermont. And here was Greece”). Similarly, in the essays themselves, Hadas sometimes risks relying on an epiphany or emotional high point when the experience being described is commonplace, or, on the other extreme, is unlikely to interest readers who lack curiosity about this particular poet-scholar’s life and lineage.

The latter would be a pity. Hadas is winning in her enthusiasm about the subjects she treats, often affecting us by how much she is affected. In a two-page essay commemorating flower-picking with her mother, she rhapsodizes:

To press a summer flat between the pages of a heavy book: what storage! What retrieval! What an arc from something tiny as a daisy’s eye to something too vast and nebulous to name, let alone hold onto or write down — call it the trail from recollection to invention, blazed and reblazed out of invention’s mother necessity, since memory can take us only so far before it lets down.

This is worlds away from the precise flower names and characteristics she notates earlier in the piece. All the same, one wants to soar with Hadas into the “vast and nebulous” — but is detained by the grasping phrase, “out of invention’s mother necessity.”

In two essays, Hadas achieves a near-perfect blend of evocation, erudition, and generalization. One is “Classics,” which takes in her childhood on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, play dates with Jim Trilling (son of critics and literary trendsetters Lionel and Diana), her awakening to ancient Greece, a memoir by Reeve Lindbergh, the “ministrations” of a doorman, and — at the very end — an episode with her father, the renowned classical scholar and translator Moses Hadas. As with many a good lyric poem, it’s hard to say exactly what this essay is “about,” but Hadas knits her impressions together with assurance, so that one is scarcely aware of the transitions. She writes:

I first read Jim Trilling’s memoir in Vermont, in late June, during a prolonged dry spell, sitting in a ragged deck chair on the parched lawn of our summer house. After I’d finished reading, I poured what was left of my tepid coffee into the yellowing grass at my feet. For a little while the liquid simply lay there in a small convex puddle before seeming to gather its forces and sink into the baked earth. The ground was far too dry to be immediately absorbent; earth, like a sponge, needs to be moist before it can soak up what it needs.

From this topological fact it is a mere sprint to a reflection on the absorbent minds of children when reading, to a quote from Hamlet (“Take me for a sponge, my lord?”), and to her friendship with children from literary families.

The same essay has a revealing passage about a practice of her father and his collaborator, John MacLean, in translating The Plays of Euripides (1936). They used italics to set the choruses apart from the rest of the play.

And henceforth that, for me, would always be what lyric meant: crystalline, knotted, flowery, or obscure, but always special, always other, always intense. They were not necessarily qualities that could be heard. The italics signaled them so that you could see them; but the essence of lyric resided also in what could not be seen […]

All my life, for better or worse, when reading poetry I have looked for words to burn with the strange fire that flickered through the italics of those choral odes, the weird light proclaiming that however ordinary the diction of the choruses, theirs was no ordinary speech.

The notion of lyric poetry’s essential restraint, a holding back that contributes to its charge, is implied in a review-essay in which Hadas praises the poet Jane Cooper for her handling of “I” — moving “closer, as the years pass, to some center from which that skinny pronoun can authoritatively issue.” The roles of self-consciousness and contingency in literary pleasure are enacted in “The Trembling Web and the Storage Facility,” which joins “Classics” to provide the two best essays in the book. The “web” of the title is a reference to Henry James’s line about “experience” as “an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.” In the more successful entries in Piece by Piece, Hadas attracts the reader with her delicate binding of memories and book talk.

In another context, James spoke of the ideal writer of fiction as “one on whom nothing is lost.” That’s all very well, but, when pondering the nature of selectivity in art, one might wish to ask, with Hadas, “What to take? What not to take?” Or, as she writes in the first poem of Love and Dread, “What can be taken away? / This and this and this. / A better question: What cannot be taken away?” In an interview with Jessica Greenbaum — it appears in Piece by Piece — Hadas expresses the need to “wring the extra moisture, squeeze the flab” out of the poems one is writing; she champions “clarity or candor or transparency” and a “greater verbal economy.” In Love and Dread and Pandemic Almanac, the question arises whether candor sometimes can masquerade as economy, whether clarity can declare itself a virtue even when the results do not compel.

As we have seen, Hadas’s prose — under the cover of exuberance — manages to hold the reader’s attention despite often swerving into terrain that can seem far removed from her plausible objective. In her two recent books of lyric poetry, however, these off-road excursions can seem indulgent. In Love and Dread’s “Sleeping Late,” two 14-line stanzas with similar last lines, Hadas begins, “You left the bedroom without waking me. / Alone in bed / I’m drifting uncommitted, out of time.” Alas, “drifting” is right. We get a line about “Volleyball on the beach in Tel Aviv” and one about the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Then the next stanza begins:

Epiphany: to get a silent person talking,
Ask them about their visions.
Epiphany: for the babies in the family,
to plan a future when the poles have melted,
no ice, no birds, no time. Is it still morning
I’m waking to?

Yawn. But we stir to the arrival of a literary cameo:

waking to the blank-faced bald
simplicity Virginia Woolf may have been thinking of
when she wrote about the army of the upright;
then up and out the door into a world
wild and tame, full of precarious promise,
to be dismantled afterwards in dreams.

This transition, too, has “precarious promise” — one hopes to be enlightened, via the reference to Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” about how to interpret what has gone before. Instead we get a flash of alliteration in the last two lines, pretty but inconsequential.

If, as noted earlier, Hadas’s reading of italicized passages from Greek choruses taught her that “the essence of lyric resided […] in what could not be seen,” then it can be argued that she is deliberately holding back in certain poems. Her direct statements, even when they contain a lucid image or recollection, are vacant or listless at times — but this may be because they are building toward allegory. In “Shouldering,” she confronts the appalling difficulty of having to explain to her students why families are being broken up at the U.S.-Mexico border. (At least we infer this is the stimulus: she wisely doesn’t mention countries, immigration, or law enforcement policies.) The students ask: “Where should we go now? Tell us what to do.” Hadas refers to “a wall” and “Gaps in the rampart: raw red border zone.” Remembering her father as a “dream bird” sitting on her shoulder, she writes:

The reassuring elders, where are they?
The dream bird looks at me and hops away.
Always uphill the steep road poetry
Scattered syllables still in my ear
when I sit up and the red world is here.

The rhyming couplets here offer a sense of crispness, of neatness, although when we revisit the final two lines, we well may ask what “red world” is doing there. The phrase assumes symbolic weight that the poem does not justify — even allowing for the earlier “raw red border zone” and the color of a complicit political party. The next two poems in Love and Dread carry a similar whiff of allegory — “Marble Cake,” in which “golden batter” is stirred in “a secret pattern / coded in dark and light,” and “Fire Pit” (“We all were running / But where was there to run to?” the speaker asks at the end) — but the scent is false: even if less were meant to mean more, the language is not beguiling enough for us to enter into a larger resonance.

In at least one poem, “Midair,” the events unroll almost like a Homeric simile, only to be grossly undercut.

When I hear of the sudden death of a classmate’s wife
or my athletic dentist’s torn aorta
or an abstemious cousin’s lung transplant
buying him not seven good years more
(reasonably good years until they weren’t), […]
Terror clutches my heart.
I feel the need to hug myself

“Terror clutches my heart”? Why not just write this thing in prose? Ezra Pound, who proclaimed writing well the sine qua non for poetry and prose alike, shows up in the second half of Hadas’s “In the Gloom, the Gold.” The title comes from what she calls “one of his best lines” (from Canto XVII: “In the gloom, the gold / Gathers the light about it.”). Appreciating a honeycomb’s “waxy partitions,” and the “ooze” of gold within them, Hadas finds a useful metaphor for the perpetual twinning of darkness and light: “the gold remained contained. It gleamed, but it was shy of crossing borders. / And on the other side, / neither could the darkness be denied.” The lyric is one of many restatements of the book’s theme: a warning, best expressed by the title poem, that all who age must live to watch “love and dread” cohabitate.

If the pair are inseparable, then which parts of human experience — which memories — should be shed or, alternatively, claimed as one’s legacy? It’s probable that Hadas admires another passage of Pound’s, from Canto LXXXI:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross.
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

The sentiment suits Hadas’s lyrical designs, which are to retrieve hope from pandemic-era crises and to illuminate our better, if fatigued, angels. In Love and Dread, she attempts to create a parable from a “clean white shirt” viewed on a “sweaty subway.” The poem knows little subtlety. “I take heart from that shirt,” she declares, contrasting it with workaday sweat and newsprint: “Counterpart of dark and light.” Hadas is rather more successful with “Trying to Get to School,” a lyric in rhyming quatrains of tetrameter. She recounts a pre-pandemic dream in which she is thwarted from reaching her destination, a place of learning and discourse, because of “locked courtyards and blocked alleyways.” When she reads the dream as signifying “isolated nights and days, / no hands held up or questions asked, / the eager faces muffled, masked,” we think the work of the poem, if unambitious, has been accomplished. But then, in the final two stanzas, a twist:

The dream I dreamed six months ago:
prophetic, but no longer true.
Now crowds have gathered — still masked, yes,
but shouting against voicelessness.
The streets are full, the atmosphere
ardent, insistent. Where is fear?
Forgotten in the hope and flow.
Justice is contagious, too.

We learn from the date of the entry that this happened shortly after the murder of George Floyd. Aided by the stanza form, Hadas here comes close to realizing an ideal of public poetry, where abstract terms such as “justice” and “hope” are forgiven, serving a higher rhetorical purpose. But that purpose is convincing not because of the image of masked crowds protesting state-sponsored racial violence, but because Hadas has snuck up on us, first presenting a vivid dream of blockage and social isolation.

Compare this backdoor approach with lines such as, in the first winter of the pandemic, “like spring — no, not yet / Like — I remember now. The word is hope,” or “Incessant changes won’t be kept at bay,” or “Fast forward (though it feels both fast and slow / in this timeless time),” or “We are all children now. / Put on your mask,” or “Love / wears a glove. / I want to touch my friend” (okay, so this one might work as a COVID-19 epigram), or, in one poem, her exasperated and exasperating diagnosis, “Anxiety’s out of control.” One concludes that Hadas generally does better when she is indirect and ironical.

Take “Little Free Library, Turners Falls,” dated “Vermont, June 2020.” Spotting a self-help book, Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Crones Don’t Whine, Hadas pauses to consider that “an aging woman’s face / crusts into a carapace, / stiff, lapidary, leathery / landscape of time’s geography,” and asks, “But can’t tears be allowed to flow?” She ends:

Crones do not whine: agreed.
But pain’s a constant, and the need
To let it out, give it a name
shouldn’t be a source of shame.
It’s just a sign of being human,
Whether you are a man or woman.
This need never diminishes.
The book was cradled on my knees
as we drove home through leafy green
into the strange embrace of June
and open-ended quarantine.
I didn’t feel the need to whine.
I’m practicing to be a crone.

“Whether you are a man or woman” may seem gratuitous — notwithstanding the still-evolving norms of gender neutrality in contemporary American letters — but the passage charmingly fuses opinion and lived experience. The off-rhyme of “quarantine” and “whine” is a nice touch, followed by the self-deprecation in her last, one-line sentence.

To linger on the positive attributes of Hadas’s poems, including, at times, the ease of her versification, it should be enough to appreciate “Blue Flower,” the second poem in Love and Dread. Rather than paraphrase, I quote it in full:

The small blue flower I stopped and stooped to pick
on the way back from my morning walk
was called — what? I forgot.
Not cornflower, morning glory, or bluebell.
I knew its modest blossom and sweet smell
perfectly well;
had often seen it
in some such cool damp spot
low to the ground and easy to walk past,
but in another state. Another life.
Hoping it would declare
itself in time, my mind
would peel a layer of cloud or blankness off,
I carried one sprig home.
I didn’t like not remembering its name.
The cool pale morning felt a little strange
in the wake of such a year of change:
love, transition, illness, patience,
more joy and sorrow stirred into our cup
than we could have thought.
Our cup full to the brim.
I didn’t want to spill a single drop.
Later that day the name
came back: Forget-Me-Not.

There is a timeless quality to this poem, which, despite lacking sharply observed or sensual detail (the color blue, the “sweet smell,” the “cool damp spot,” and the evocative list of flowers are pretty much all we get), is memorable for the return of memory at the end. The last syllable of the flower’s name is paired shrewdly with the rhyme-word “thought” and the assonance of “drop,” both separated from each other and from “Forget-Me-Not” by at least one line. The cliché of a “cup full to the brim” with “joy and sorrow” is pardoned because Hadas’s flower and admonition, “Forget-Me-Not,” in the proximity of that cup, conjures the classical trope of drinking from Lethe.

Precious little is wasted here. By contrast, many of the lines in Joy and Dread and Pandemic Almanac — and sometimes whole poems — could have been excised with profit, in the name of the “verbal economy” Hadas praises in her interview with Jessica Greenbaum. It may seem uncharitable, but, thumbing both volumes, one asks the question Hadas poses in Love and Dread, and finds she has supplied an answer: “What can be taken away? / This and this and this.”


Sunil Iyengar’s chapbook of poems, A Call from the Shallows (Finishing Line Press), came out earlier this year.