Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005
By Robert Hass
Original and Current Publisher: Ecco/Harper Collins
Evie Shockley writes:
The problem with trying to write about Bob Hass’s wonderful collection, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005, comes directly out of one of its most appealing qualities: the expansive territory it covers. It opens with a poem consisting of a single, rhymed couplet—not regularly metrical, but indebted to meter—and before we reach the last poem, we have encountered short, multi-sectioned lyrics; conversational narrative poems; long, Whitman-esque meditations; a prose poem; and a haibun, among other styles and structures. Without his venturing much into the realms of the avant-garde or the neo-formalist, he exploits enough different possibilities for line, stanza, and syntax that the collection refuses the visual consistency that risks dullness or promises orderliness (depending on your view).
It isn’t, however, these formal matters that I most have in mind when I point to the volume’s expansiveness, but rather the book’s geographical, historical, and thematic breadth. We move from California to Germany to Korea; from Horace to Vermeer to John Ashbery; from sex and nature to art and domesticity to death and war. True, there is a sizable chunk of the world (the part near or below the equator) that remains beyond the scope of these poems, and they privilege what has traditionally been called “high” and “Western” culture. But Hass works out his ideas across a pretty wide range of contexts nonetheless, and those ideas are articulated in such a generous manner as to indicate their even wider applicability. That my own cultural landscape overlaps with his somewhat imperfectly is thus grounds for disappointment, but not complaint.
Looking back to an early career book like Praise, which I am teaching this semester, I get the impression that Hass has all along been trying to strike a certain balance between a poetry of rich, physical detail and one of transcendent, metaphysical compass. In Time and Materials, the book’s very title suggests that here he succeeds. He certainly achieves some measure of success with it, as the book won not only the National Book Award, but the Pulitzer Prize as well. I am struck by the way his sometime luscious, sometimes stark descriptions provide robust scaffolding for his engagement with the conceptual. Similarly, his soaring meditations really launch the poems that might otherwise be almost heavily concrete.
For example, a poem like “Bush’s War” moves from gorgeous images to gory ones:
At the end of the twentieth century
In the leafy precincts of Dahlem Dorf,
South of the Grunewald, near Krumme Lanke,
The northern spring begins before dawn
In a racket of birdsong, when the amsels,
Black European thrushes, shiver the sun up
As if they were shaking a great tangle
Of golden wire.
. . . .
Flash forward: firebombing of Hamburg,
Fifty thousand dead in a single night,
“The children’s bodies the next day
Set in the street in rows like a market
In charred chicken.”
He proceeds to march us through a century of war-driven massacres in Tokyo, the Katyn Woods, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, the Ukraine, and Vietnam (with Baghdad, of course, on the poem’s horizon) on the way to noticing a present-day German student with “The kind of book the young love / To love, about love in the time of war.” This moment, and all the images and references with which he precedes it, enable him to ask the necessary questions:
You are never not wondering how
It happened, and these Germans, too,
Children then, or unborn, never not
Wondering. Is it that we like the kissing
And bombing together, in prospect
At least, girls in their flowery dresses?
* * * *
Look at boys playing: they love
To figure out the ways to blow things up.
But the rest of us have to go along.
Why do we do it?
I can’t do without that shivery golden tangle of wire anymore than I can do without the interrogation of the relationship between humanity and violence. I don’t insist on having both the stunning image and the engagement with socio-political questions in the same poet’s work—let alone the same poem—but when I get both (as in Lucille Clifton’s work, to take the example of another National Book Award winner), I am deeply moved.
People frequently refer to Hass’s work as “intelligent,” and I can only agree. There are various ways a poetic intelligence might be evidenced, but his curiosity about all manner of subjects and ability to draw connections among them is certainly one way. His dry sense of humor only adds to the appeal, as here: “Hay / Is the Old English word for strike. You strike down / Grass, I guess, when it is moan. Mown.” I’ll close by quoting in full a short ars poetica that not only embodies the Hass-ian poetic intelligence, but also gestures toward his important work as a translator and the “nature poetry” he is known for. In “That Music,” he generously presents us with the kind of challenge he delights in, inviting each of us to think with him about it:
The creek’s silver in the sun of almost August,
And bright dry air, and last runnels of snowmelt,
Percolating through the roots of mountain grasses
Vinegar weed, golden smoke, or meadow rust,
Do they confer, do the lovers’ bodies
In the summer dusk, his break, her sleeping face,
Confer—, does the slow breeze in the pines?
If you were the interpreter, if that were your task.
Do they? We may.
Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- Linda Gregerson for Magnetic North
- David Kirby for The House on Boulevard St.
- Stanley Plumly for Old Heart
- Ellen Bryant Voigt for Messenger: New and Selected Poems, 1976-2006
Poetry Judges that Year: Charles Simic, Linda Bierds, David St. John, Vijay Seshadri, Natasha Trethewey
The Year in Literature:
- Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Charles Simic was named Poet Laureate of the United States.
- Robert Hass (1941- ) was born in San Francisco, CA.
- Hass’ book Time and Materials would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2008.
Robert Hass' 2007 National Book Award Acceptance Speech
- Hass' 2007 National Book Award profile page
- NBF Interview with 2007 National Book Award Poetry Winner Robert Hass, conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher
- Hass' profile page at Poets.org
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