February 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005’ by Robert Hass

By Greg McLaren

Time and Materials, Robert Hass’s fifth collection, won the 2007 American National Book Award for poetry. Surprisingly for a poet of his stature and longevity, Hass doesn’t yet have a selected volume to his name. Such modesty is in keeping with his key poetic impulse: to approach the sublime through the ephemeral. If this creates problems for writing experience, sublime or not, Hass copes with them, facing the limits of language as it encounters sheer presence. He argues that self and other, presence and sublimity, are interconnected in ways that are beyond speech.

The difficulties of what is unsayable, and of empathy, form an ongoing question running through the book: ‘What would you do if you were me?’ To represent otherness (or indeed, self) is ‘to render time and stand outside / The horizontal rush of it’. By both resisting language’s limitations and accepting its inevitable reductiveness, Hass is able to represent experience with something approaching fidelity. In fact, when he hints at the work of representing the otherness of nature, Hass drifts through these limitations: he shifts from confidently stating, ‘The aspen glitters in the wind / And that delights us,’ to seeing only ‘The aspen doing something in the wind’. This isn’t an evasion, but instead enacts the difficulty in trying to represent anything, yet proceeding nonetheless. That these issues necessarily resist resolution may actually be Hass’s point: if, as he argues almost metaphorically, ‘A line is the distance between two points,’ then perhaps writing provides a barrier to direct experience. Cloaking his doubt in itself like this, he delves into impossibilities.

Late in the book, Hass’s career-long conversation with the community of writers and artists (notable in the numerous poems revelling in a painterly attention to colour, texture and movement) broadens out past those milieux as he opens up his sensibility to more overtly political material (‘Bush’s War’, ‘A Poem’, ‘On Visiting the DMZ at Panmunjon’), which tends to suffer from his unfamiliarity, I think, with the technical and tonal challenges of politically engaged, discursive poetry. This reaching beyond the familiar, though flawed, marks Hass as a very substantial poet, one prepared to fail in order to expand his already impressive range.

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