Nov 23, 2012

Robert Hass, "Meditation at Lagunitas": Ways of Being and Saying

Meditation at Lagunitas by Robert Hass : The Poetry Foundation

There are two kinds of language, two kinds of experiencing, two ways of being in the world in Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas.”  The first mode begins in the opening two lines; it’s all about the left brain and analysis, cognition, deduction, intellect, abstraction. The very subject is “thinking” in a meditation that’s the beginning of a comparison essay:

            All the new thinking is about loss.
            In this it resembles all the old thinking.

In this mode, some of Hass’s declarations are downright aphoristic when separated from the whole poem, and, to take a negative view of aphorisms, we might say they’re like fortune cookies or bumper stickers—apparent truths without benefit of discussion or examples and experience from the tangible, palpable world, or the world of intuition, ambiguity, mystery, magic, sensuous delight.

If there’s a positive view of aphorisms, it’s probably based on the way they pin down a piece of Truth in a precise, pithy, and seemingly valid way. Some synonyms or related terms might be epigram, axiom, platitude, maxim. Here are some fairly aphoristic lines from Hass that tend toward elegance, subtlety, complexity and loftiness more than most axioms do: 

            All the new thinking is about loss.
            In this it resembles all the old thinking.

                                                each particular erases
            the luminous clarity of a general idea.

            a word is elegy to what it signifies.

            talking this way, everything dissolvesjustice,
            pine, hair, woman, you and I.

                                                            desire is full
            of endless distances.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Faver-Dykes S.P.,FL

These lines are clearly going for big wisdom and philosophical insight, and they might be faulted for trying too hard. But Hass truly fleshes out the poem with vivid, often gorgeous images of the physical world.

                                                       the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch

            her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
            I felt a violent wonder at her presence
            like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
            with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
            muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver                                     fish
            called pumpkinseed.

                                    the way her hands dismantled bread,
            the thing her father said that hurt her,

In these quotations, I hope the differences between abstract, aphoristic expression and concrete imagery are clear as two different modes of being and awareness.

Moreover, at the center of the poem, Hass offers two lines that encapsulate the two kinds of mental operation.

     talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
     pine, hair, woman, you and I.   
Pike's Pond, Lenox, MA

The first line is general, summarizing, abstract declaration, ending in one of the greatest abstractions of all, “justice.” But immediately the following line plunges completely into the physical, concrete, immediate world, so that a dualism is clear. 

Of course, the most emphatic image of sensuousness, and the victor if there’s been a contest, is the single, italicized, repeated word and physical image, blackberry. Can the “good flesh” continue? 

Hass is too wise to choose between black hats and white hats, but he would like a world and a life in which “numinous” flesh could go on and on, physical and mortal on the one hand, spiritual, mental, and endless on the other. And he imagines a third “numinous” hand, which contains both ways of being—the temporal and the eternal—and thus requires no choice by the human. To try to articulate that world, all he can do, ironically, is repeat a single word, the odd, beautiful center of sensuality:  blackberry.

I don’t mean to force some happy (or haughty) ending about Thanksgiving when I say Hass might be giving us something good to be thankful about—something more elevated and meaningful than gorging on turkey or lining up at 1:00 a.m. to gather more stuff.

Meditation at Lagunitas by Robert Hass : The Poetry Foundation


Hannah Stephenson said...

Robert Hass...he is so good. I love him.

I love "The thing her father said that hurt her"--there are some things in this poem that stay hidden behind his hands (which also makes it work, for me).

Happy Thanksgiving! Another slice of blackberry pie...?

WAS said...

Thanks Banjo for sharing this significant contemporary poem for your and others’ interpretation. What I love about Meditations is the way the “aphorisms” progress, like the logic of a conversation, or better yet a dance where the mind is systematically stilled until one can see it has only been the heart after all. Yet the poem is also about something in a larger sense: trying to answer the ancient question of what is the purpose of loss (or why, as Stevens put it “death is the mother of beauty”). Hass is quite a sly connoisseur of loss, starting with a joke that the new thing is loss just like the old thing. Then he uses as example the Platonic (or is it Buddhist?) conundrum of whether the world is lost because it has become differentiated (“some tragic falling off from undifferentiated light”) or because our perception of differentiation is false (“A word is elegy to what it signifies”). Then he sees that his grappling with this paradox in conversation with others makes the abstract words themselves dissolve (become lost) in the largeness of the human interaction. So he immediately takes that thought of human connection to its extreme, in the form of a depersonalized sexual object of a (remembered) woman. As he drinks at the bar of that heartbreak and recognizes his longing for her was not about her or even him, he gets to the distance between as the source of his longing. So true masochist of grief he is he tries to go deeper into that distance, but gets stuck at the surface details of her life that she shared with him. These inexplicably – and without any more personalization – transport him to a sense of “numinousness,” or connection with the larger whole. The distance is not overcome, but the things that remain – the details – suffice, or at least make him feel more alive. The voices in his head become true at that point, and the heart presence breaks through to the unnamable, what he calls “blackberry” because the words, after all, are not anything, but they are the only thing.

Anonymous said...

"It hardly had to do with her." That's my favorite, I think, among several. Back to the stories we tell ourselves -- at the time, and then later. The story never stays the same, does it?

As an aside, given Hass's thoughts on words and words as symbols, I wonder if he'd be amused to know that, for some of us, "blackberry, blackberry, blackberry" conjures up an odious electronic device that destroyed many a moment and many a story.

Jean Spitzer said...

I love all of the photos.

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, good. He’s another one I keep meaning to go back to more thoroughly. Also, the “father hurt her” line has stuck with me for ages too, but I’d forgotten where it came from. In fact, I’d switched the child to a “him” in my egocentric mind.

Blackberry pie? This morning I came across two or three poems with “Blackberry” in the title (one fairly famous one by Galway Kinnell). Zero for strawberry. Or banana, or Hersey bar. What’s up with that?

Wm, you’ve really thought about this poem, and I appreciate your comments—esp. “the abstract words themselves dissolve (become lost) in the largeness of the human interaction” and your concluding paradox: “the words, after all, are not anything, but they are the only thing.” Thanks.

Wm and AH, I agree that “It hardly had to do with her” is a crucial line and idea, but I wonder if Wm’s “depersonalized sexual object” for the woman is too extreme, when the speaker remembers holding her shoulders, and her hands dismantling bread, and the willows, and the pumpkinseed fish, and her father’s hurting her. Maybe Hass himself doesn’t realize how nearly complete she was and is to him, though it’s certainly true that he’s aware of what’s missing, the distance, the longing.

On the other hand, I think AH makes a huge point—about Hass and humanity in general—when she refers to the stories we tell ourselves, romantic or otherwise. How do we connect the story of the blackberry to the berry itself, or the longing to the actual person? And, outside the worlds of poetry and philosophy, how many of us even realize it’s a job we should take on, though we should know at the outset that we’ll fail.

I find all this fascinating, huge, important, difficult stuff. In human awareness, is there such thing as honesty or accuracy?

Jean, do you think about any of that in relation to painting, or art in general? Are you usually going for the person or the idea about the person? Or are you trying to fill the gap between those two poles?

Jean, thanks once more about the photos. Each turned out better than I expected. The pond shots were almost afterthoughts—I’m on this walk, so I better take a few pics, whether or not I keep them; but I ended up liking those two. Also, I suspect real sharpness on birds is probably going to require a big lens and tripod someday, but that might kill the immense pleasure I have in carefree hunting.

Ken Mac said...

blue blue window behind the stars..

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Rune Eide said...

This proved to be an educational experience for a poor European: I had to Google Lagunitas and I had to remember that Blackberry means something very special in the daily life of Americans, while it is almost non-existent in Europe (we have been GSM-based with a hundred brands for at least 15 years).
Back to the post: A compliment for your choice of the photo of the woodpecker - excellent and very fitting. When it comes to aphorisms, one of my favourites are Mark Twain, so maybe that is why I had trouble following some of the more esoteric comments here. I appreciated the order of dissolution: Justice first - self last. To me an impressive way of putting it.
For the "love scene" I got a flash-back to Leonard Cohen (I heard him in concert three months ago) - maybe that stopped me from getting any deeper.

Stickup Artist said...

Just stopped by to comment on how much I love the 2 pond photos. Especially the color, variety of movements and the abstract quality of the first. Great image. I'm totally too exhausted to comment on Hass's intense poem. I'll try to come back later when my head is clearer...

Banjo52 said...

Rune, I had to look it up too, though I knew Hass lived in northern California. And yes, his blackberry would be the one on bushes, not the telephone store--I never thought of that! Twain and Leonard Cohen--mighty good stuff!

Stickup, that's fine, of course. Hass is no walk in the park, but I find he's usually worth it.

Rune and Stickup, thanks for the strokes on the photos.

Lovers' Lane