A reader has asked me to comment on the poem in Robert Hass’s book titled “Human Wishes” that I discuss in my essay Robert Hass, poet: Meaning and Form and Pleasure. I am doing so here as part of what I view as conversation between me as writer and you as reader. I say this because I don’t write here as a critic. I write what I hope are reflective essays that express some of who I am—and that me is primarily a writer of fiction, memoir and lyric essay.
The reader’s request struck me as particularly fair because I open the essay I wrote with an epigraph that quotes from the prose poem “Human Wishes,” but I don’t discuss that poem at all in the essay.
Here’s the epigraph:
. . . as if language were a kind of moral cloud chamber
through which the world passed and from which
it emerged charged with desire.—Robert Hass
I admit that the full prose poem has stymied me even in several re-readings. So I want to try here to address what I think might be going on in this full-page, single paragraph that the prose comprises and the context for the epigraph I lifted out.
Hass uses what I refer to as the “unity” of a paragraph to hold a number of seemingly discordant events. These include his opening image:
This morning the sun rose over the garden wall and a rare blue sky leaped from east to west.
I love that image of the sky leaping and don’t want to make too much of it, but in the sense of a paragraph, I argue that it serves as what our English teachers might have called the “thesis statement.” In this sense I observe that perhaps Hass is exploring how a narrative, whether placed in stanza lines or in a prose paragraph, might leap with images lying next to one another.
Here are some of the stories that get told on this one full page:
An observation: Man is altogether desire, say the Upanishads.
Then Hass tells about Mr. Aker, the Shelford Gardener, placing us in a village south of Cambridge where he and his wife Earlene must have been. Shelford makes a comment about the “worth” of a blue sky.
Earlene was Hass’s first wife—just to keep you up-to-date, Hass has been married since 1995 to the poet Brenda Hillman.
Earlene has recently bought a Welsh cupboard to take back to their home in Berkley, has gone to Cambridge to search for a repair for it while the poet stays in town and tells us about what he saw on television the night before, Earlene’s efforts to repair the cupboard and his desire to write facing a blank page and thinking of the words tongue-in-groove because, or it would seem to follow that he is thinking this because Earlene needs some fine eighteenth-century tongue-in-groove pine to replace the missing back—Hass’s words are fill that empty space—of the cupboard she had bought in Saffron Walden. It turns out that she’s, according to the practical gardener Mr. Aker, been a bit hoodwinked by a shopman in Cambridge who first said he didn’t have the pine she needed, and then when she returned, thinking she had seem some pine there, found some right under his feet, which was puzzling. The gardener Mr. Aker, on hearing the story, posits that the governor, British slang I presume for the manager, of the store she’s re-visited, was then away. He asserts that the shopman has taken the pine from scrap and pocketed the four quid she paid him to spend at the pub or wager on the horses and he might parley it into a fortune. With that line the prose poem ends.
In the midst of this narrative lies the epigraph I chose for my essay on what I see as the meaning and form of the whole of Human Wishes and the pleasures that book gave me.
Here is the full line:
I stayed home to write, or rather stayed home and stared at a blank piece of paper, waiting for her to come back, thinking tongue-in-groove, tongue-in-groove, as if language were a kind of moral cloud through which the world passed and from which it emerged with desire.
My take on the prose poem with this evocative insertion inside the presumed unity of a so-called paragraph is that when we write there is a longing, desire, for meaning that may or may not result from the concordant and discordant images that lie next to one another in the whole. I read the prose poem “Human Wishes,” a piece that has, as I say at the start eluded while intrigued me, and that I see now as the desire, the human desire, to communicate, to make some sense in the face of the chaos that life presents. Perhaps the narrative Hass gives us is one extended metaphor to express that struggle using a humorous turn as he closes, that of Earlene having been likely hoodwinked—though she does get the piece of pine she needs to make her beloved old Welsh cupboard whole.
But who’s to know if that was Robert Hass’s intent, or if more likely, I see inside his narrative, my own struggle for meaning in my writing process.
On this matter of what Hass, the writer, is trying to do when he sets pen to paper, I refer to Hass’s essay “Images” in his collection Twentieth Century Pleasures; Prose on Poetry that appeared after Human Wishes. In this essay Hass says while discussing the poetry of many, including Whitman whom he’s just quoted before the comment that I will quote and, in offering this quote, I give Hass the last word here and let you, the reader, come to your own conclusion, should one be needed:
Metaphor in general, lays one linguistic pattern against another. It can do so with a suddenness and force that rearrange categories of thought. But in the extended metaphor, the mind hesitates for a moment, sees the connection, and the orderliness of signification is resumed while the mind reads both sides of the code. It is something like walking railroad tracks.
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