Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry: Hass and Sze-Lorrain
By Lisa Russ SpaarAugust 29, 2014
Praise by Robert Hass
My Funeral Gondola by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
I LONG AGO loaned and lost to two former students my cherished volumes of Robert Hass’s first book, Field Guide (1973), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and Praise (1979), recipient of the William Carlos Williams Award, and so to prepare for this essay I’ve been reading copies of both books from my university library. Unlike many volumes of contemporary poetry I’ve borrowed from the library, whose covers appear rarely to have been opened, these early books by Hass show evidence of deep, engaged reading. Nearly every page is dog-eared and stained by coffee and other spills, a palimpsest of marginal checks, underlinings, exclamation points, and notes. Alongside this particularly lush, prickly passage in “Songs to Survive the Summer” from Praise,
. . . Death
in the sweetness, in the bitter
and the sour, death
in the salt, your tears,
this summer ripe and overripe.
It is a taste in the mouth,
child. We are the song
death takes its own time
singing. It calls us
as I call you child . . . ,
one previous reader has scribbled in pencil, “I wish RH. not Married.” Between pages 66 and 67 of the same poem lay a now brittle, gray-blue bay or mountain laurel leaf.
Among the many reasons, in this Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books column, for pairing a second book of poems written 20 or more years ago with a recently published second book of poems are 1) to call attention to a deserving poet whose early work, or whose oeuvre in general, is under-read and/or under-appreciated by 21st-century readers, 2) to talk about the particular ways in which a poet’s second book signals a leap forward for a poet, perhaps even ushering in a poet’s signature style, 3) to observe a poet’s early technical, formal ruses and obsessions in light of later developments, 4) to redeem important poems from the second books which are not anthologized and therefore at risk of disappearing from view, especially if the work does not appear in readily available new and selected editions, and 5) to juxtapose a second book by an established poet with a second book by an emerging poet in ways that illuminate both.
Hass — who served a two-term stint as U.S. Poet Laureate and whose poetry and prose continue to be widely read by a demographically and aesthetically diverse population of admirers — is not imperiled by obscurity. His “Meditation at Lagunitas,” from Praise, for instance, with its anthem lines — “a word is elegy to what it signifies” and “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” — is a staple in nearly every anthology of contemporary American poetry, and is familiar not only to the NPR, Garrison Keillor, academy creative writing program, and poetry festival nations, but also to many high school students, even those more inclined to find their poetry in the raw, arresting lyrics of Kendrick Lamar or the arcane beauty of The Decembrists, Bad Brains, The Mountain Goats, The Replacements, or Joanna Newsom. Nor is his early work an embarrassment. While many poets later rue the apprentice pieces that can worm their way into a first or second book, what is remarkable about the poems in both Field Guide and Praise is the fully wagered and realized maturity of their linguistic and sensory temporal beatitude. The risk they take, a risk Hass has continued to take throughout his career, is their vulnerability to, awareness of, and responsibility toward desire, particularly male desire, as well as their receptivity to beauty, a stance which takes courage in a culture wary of sentiment (though often suckered by easier sentimentality) and the allure of beauty’s artifice. This is especially so in an environmentally and politically threatened world in which the place of poetry itself is often suspect and challenged.
Praise is not only full of the names of things, especially those that characterize Hass’s native “uneasy coast” — sunflower, goldfinch, owl clover, dead-nettle, thimbleberry, loquat — but also of an awareness of how acts of naming fashion the self (“Ah, love, this is fear,” begins “Sunrise”: “This is fear and syllables / and the beginnings of beauty”) and of the self in the world. “Winter Morning in Charlottesville,” for example, manages, in just one short lyric, to take on arguments for and against beauty and the sensual, especially in the context of America’s origins (our “plain” Puritanical strain as well as Jefferson’s vexed and passionate “hurried declaration”) and in the larger picture of European religious and artistic inheritances:
and gothic traceries of poplar.
In the sacrament of winter
Savonarola raged against the carnal word.
Inside the prism of that eloquence
even Botticelli renounced the bestial gods
gathers in the dogwood buds.
this morning is the otherwise
By a natural
selection, the word
originates its species,
the blood flowers,
republics scrawl their hurried declarations
& small birds scavenge
in the chaste late winter grass.
In How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry, Willard Spiegelman writes that for American poets, description is a “collective and complex effort to reply to [the world’s] invitations or temptations by honoring, with or without subduing, it.” He is responding, in part, to a very particular American notion of sublimity, expressed by the likes of Emerson (“leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own, / To brave the landscape’s looks”), that what we look at looks back at us intimately. As with other great lyric political poets, American or otherwise (Yeats, Heaney, Levertov, Rukeyser), who are capable of voicing outrage without resorting to mere proselytizing, in Hass’s poems abstraction never trumps what he elsewhere calls the “lobotomy of description.” Nor does beauty triumph over horror, the personal over the social, the contemplative over the activist — or vice versa. His work marries the bracing social clarity of, say, Chekhov, with the prismatic, familial and pastoral compression of Issa. “The dangers are everywhere,” Hass writes in “The Beginning of September”:
Auxiliary verbs, fishbones, a fine carelessness. No one really likes the odor of geraniums, not the woman who dreams of sunlight and is always late for work nor the man who would be happy in altered circumstances. Words are abstract, but words are abstract is a dance, car crash, heart’s delight. It’s the dumb design hunger has upon the world.
In “Not Going to New York: A Letter,” Hass calls poetry the place where “decay and a created / radiance lie hidden inside words the way that memory / folds them into living.” The perpetual plundering of this mysterious dependence of form (artifice that gives shape and birth to thought, change, and that which is the antidote to an uninformed “squalor of mind”) and the utter seduction of the flawed, fallen world, with its “swath of copper leaves” — and all offered with what Louise Glück calls his “obstinate humanity” — is why I read Robert Hass, why I return to praise his early poems and continue to read with admiration and interest anything he writes.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain, a poet, editor, translator, zheng harpist, and orchid healer, whose first book, Water the Moon, appeared from Marick Press in 2010, shares many of Robert Hass’s obsessions — an attraction to littoral realms, a penchant for discoursing with other art forms, particularly Asian culture, as well as a jones for beauty, travel, time, physical love, food (leeks on an omelette, ginger jam, mussels marinières), and language itself. Petition and lamentation are inextricable (we praise/prize because we are mortal; we grieve because we love), and My Funeral Gondola, which mourns the loss of a child and, as a result, the speaker’s former self, provocatively complements Hass’s Praise, with its litanic, almost talismanic “intelligence / of hunger.”
Currently living in France, Sze-Lorraine was born in Singapore and received a British education before moving to the United States, where she graduated from Columbia University and New York University, followed by pursuit of a PhD at Paris-Sorbonne University. This hybrid nexus of multi-cultural and linguistic influences may account, in part, for the blue note of melancholic exile and shadow-ghosting in both Water the Moon and her new collection — a banishment from self that is also surely linked to loss and to the fickleness of language, which is always a translation. Here is “When the Title Took Its Life”:
My saddest lines
wish to know how they left
and why I imprison them
along margins. Abbreviated
but exhausted from labor.
Tonight, they wreak revenge
on my mortal hand —
Write, “I don’t know
why I am sad.
Night is long. Like an empty house
with annexes of silence.”
Or bar with a slash
words like “bleeding,”
“persecution,” “exile,” and “loneliness.”
Like a blind judge, these lines
doubt my sincerity.
Here is not life.
The sickle moon looks down.
What does it know? The storm
I heard when I meant
to be writing.
The word “gondola” derives from the Venetian-Italian “to rock, to roll,” and Sze-Lorrain’s poems in this book are themselves the gondolas, bearing the speaker through what her sister poet Emily Dickinson would call “whole pools” of grief — sorrow at the loss of loved ones, terror and melancholy at the constructs of an old self that must, in the wake of bereavement, be left behind as well. In another poem (Franklin 696), Dickinson writes of “the eager look — on Landscapes — / As if they just repressed / Some secret — that was pushing / Like Chariots — in the Vest.” If one looks into a Hass poem and sees an altered landscape, even history, looking back, when one looks into a Sze-Lorrain poem it is the poem itself, with a certain shimmering, specular irony and/or distance, that returns our gaze. As these lines from “My Nudity” attest, it is not confession we find, or even ekphrasis, but rather the artifice of the gondola/poem itself, the “[Chariot] — in the Vest”:
Before this mirror, I am my painter,
realizing that bareness
and never shuts.
What is pride? The image inside us.
Thank you, mole,
for behaving like an ink
from a visible site,
that trembles and tickles
The elegant, spare lyrics in My Funeral Gondola float and stall and float again on a kind of Hunter Gracchus sojourn of grief, “each day, a lesson / about erasure. You can feel / with nothing.” The book closes with a long poem, “Return to Self (not in order of importance).” Like Hass, Sze-Lorrain is a high lyricist who refuses to resort to mere lyricism in order to articulate her experience of inner and outer embattlement. In these closing lines, the long sentences by which Sze-Lorrain has re-built and reclaimed herself articulate our obstinately human conundrum — no house without sabre, no love without pain:
This is a low-key departure. Observe the rites, but don’t mourn.
By tints and degrees, consider this death a ghost poem.
After my wake, Philippe will give away my twenty-eight hats and
five jars of wrong buttons. At twenty-six, he freed lives from
radios. At sixty-two, he sought pigeons and spoons.
My heart plays volcanic stone.
In the table of contents, you are still alive.
At 1 a.m. I vote for a faith. This is my secret. And my fox.
Our house, guarded by a sabre. Honor this, them, us, and alas.
The paradox of Sze-Lorrain’s truth, one shared by Hass, as well — no “us” without “alas” — is poetry’s crux as well.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.
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