The Alchemy of Robert Hass


Meditation at Lagunitas” is a classic Robert Hass poem. The reading experience is similar to that of some of his other best poems: what seems causal and at times abstract ends up fusing into something transcendent. Hass is an expert at successfully and convincingly dropping in bold, general statements, as in the oft-quoted opening of this poem: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” His success from this point on depends on his ability to simultaneously veer wildly away from this central idea into specific detail and lyric refrain–and yet contain and encompass all his seemingly unrelated musings within this expansive theme.

Hass alternates between philosophical statements and strong, carefully-chosen images, upping the ante each time. The first pairing is: “The idea, for example, that each particular erases / the luminous clarity of a general idea” with the image “[t]hat the clown- / faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk / of that black birch is, by his presence, / some tragic falling off from a first world / of undivided light.” Here abstraction and specificity fuse in the first moment of elaborating on the theme of loss. The second example only escalates and develops this theme with “…the other notion that, / because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds, / a word is elegy to what it signifies.” Again, drawing on the detail of nature (ostensibly details gathered from Lagunitas), Hass develops the theme of loss outward into the ineffable–into the marvelous idea of naming (an archetype, as in Adam from Genesis) turned on its head to be a kind of elegy, or consolation for loss.

Here Hass departs from this powerful image-idea pairing of elegy with blackberry, into another kind of meditation which pairs lovemaking with longing for the free feeling of childhood. This further develops his foray into the ineffable, and into loss (since childhood is so universally felt to be irrevocable)–only to return to the idea-image pairing of elegy and blackberry in the scene focused on sensuality and the body, with “Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings, / saying, blackberry, blackberry, blackberry. [italics in original]” Returning not to the idea, but the act of repeating the word which is the name for the unattainable and transitory sweetness of a blackberry gives the poem a kind of breathless rhapsody that feels deeply resonant and earned.

Had Hass cut right to the recitation of the word “blackberry” after pairing it with elegy, the poem would have felt strained. But through the gentle, careful layering on of imagery from childhood like “the little orange-silver fish / called pumpkinseed” and well-crafted phrases, such as his wonder at his lover’s presence “like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river”–lead us through territory that is at the same time both diverse and carefully focused around articulating the in-articulable–the great, existential longing, the “thinking about loss” Hass set up in the beginning almost as boldly as one would declare a thesis in an academic paper.

This is, however, no academic exercise–but a carefully honed meditation on one of the great, if not perhaps the only, great theme in poetry. Rather than simply waxing philosophical, Hass gets inside loss and the ineffable in this work through its deceptively careful structure, pairing phenomenal imagery and rich description with equally compelling intellectual statements, fusing them with such intense heat as to create something altogether alchemical and new–a kind of lifting above any single idea or image into the territory of the ineffable itself.