Nature’s Imaginative Beauty
The Apple Trees at Olema
Robert Hass is a major voice in American letters, having won nearly every literary award for both his poems and his literary criticism. His new book, The Apple Trees at Olema, is without a doubt his most remarkable, gathering large selections from his previous five books of poetry: Field Guide (1973), Praise (1979), Human Wishes (1989), Sun Under Wood (1996), and Time and Materials (2007). Being so comprehensive, The Apple Trees at Olema not only showcases Hass’s finest work from each past volume, but also retains each collection’s individual integrity as an artistic whole.
The Apple Trees at Olema opens with several new poems, many of which mimic the scattered, fragmentary, observational form of notebook entries. This fractured verse meanders and flits, interrupting descriptive scenes with the occasional philosophical and personal interjection. This results in searching, meditative narratives that often demand much metaphysical reflection. The poems are complex and develop in layers, as in the volume’s opening poem, “July Notebook: The Birds”:
There are four kind of birdsong outside
and a methodical early morning saw.
No, not a saw, It’s a boy on a scooter and the sun
on his black helmet is concentrated to a point of glowing light.
When perception is solely aural, a saw is heard. However, when sight is juxtaposed with aurality, the sound of a saw becomes the body of a boy riding a scooter in the early light. This precise image seems almost frozen like a photograph or painting. But the glowing light gives it a dramatic, almost metaphysical property, as if yet another remarkable synaesthetic transformation is about to occur. Hass addresses this expectation of possible transfiguration with a philosophical interjection:
He isn’t death come to get us
and he isn’t truth arriving in a black T-shirt
chevroned up the arms in tongues of flame.
The figure of the boy does not suggest some grand ontological meaning. He is merely himself: a boy, who was once a saw. Since he is now a boy on a scooter, since the light glows concentrically on his helmet, and since he too, like the saw, may be on the edge of transformation, he is beautiful. Hass’s poetic images are too intricate and ripe with possibility to be whittled down to gauche life-or-death interpretative paradigms.
This complexity of symbolism also features in the collection’s title poem, which comes from Hass’s third collection, Human Wishes. An apple tree elicits polarized emotions from its observer:
Torn flesh, it was the repetitive torn flesh
of appetite in the cold white blossoms
that had startled her. Now they seem tender
and where she was repelled she takes the measure
of the trees and lets them in.
Like so many of Hass’s finest poems, this is a meditation on love, desire, and time’s tug on both; the apple trees provide the perfect mirror for the characters’ and the narrator’s interior landscapes. This is further evidence that, for Hass, nature is never merely a fixed ornamental flourish but an intricate and detailed reflection and projection of the human psyche. The way the characters briefly respond to the sight of the forgotten trees (“He could be knocking wildly at a closed door / in a dream”) builds tension and offers glimpses into their absent narratives. The narrator’s own interjection (“If it is afternoon, a thing moon of my own dismay / fades like a scar in the sky to the east of them”) adds a further dimension to the poem, one that is characteristic of Hass’s work: the overt acknowledgment that the poem is the work of an imaginative creator. In the poem quoted above, Hass even engages the reader in conversation: “You are awake now?” and “Are you there?” At times he responds for the reader: “I am awake now.” The result is an unashamed admission that poems are constructions of the human imagination, that they are concerned with artifice as much as they are concerned with truth.
The co-existence of the real and imaginary calls to mind another beautiful line, again from “July Notebook: The Birds”:
Are you there? Maybe it would be best
to be the shadow of a pine needle
on a midsummer morning
(to be in imagination and for a while
on a midsummer morning
the shadow side of a pine needle)
To be in imagination is not to be the physical self that we embody within reality, but to be the metaphyisical manifestation of the self that is envisioned by the creative mind. To be poetically rendered as a slim shadow of a pine needle. “Yes,” the reader can hear himself respond, “yes, to be a shadowy replica of pine needle, that would be best.” This imaginary space is comforting, providing a restful reprieve from ordinary life. And Hass, by addressing us, invites us to join him in this space.
Re-reading Hass’s poems reminds me of the time I was first introduced to his poetry at the 2004 Academy of American Poets reading in New York, where he read “Bush’s War”, later to be published in Time and Materials. I remember hearing the title and sighing, expecting some trite, overwrought political tirade against a war and administration toward which poetic response had often seemed belabored. Instead, the poem was a complex, meandering meditation on the nature and history of war and its effects on the body (individual and collective, personal and political). As nature appears to flourish and “Black European thrushes,/ Shiver the sun up / As if they were shaking a great tangle / Of Golden wire” Hass reminds us that “it is a trick of the mind/ That the past seems just ahead of us” and the reader/listener is suddenly propelled into a series of harrowing historical visions:
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.’ Flash forward:
Firebombing in Tokyo, a hundred thousand
In a night
The insertions soon drop the “forward”, further highlighting their association with the rapidity of gunfire:
Flash: Auschwitz, Dachau, Theresienstadt,
The train lurching and the stomach woozy
Past the displays of falls of hair, the piles
of monogrammed valises, spectacles
These descriptions resist sentimentality, relating details only, in newsreel fashion, and this makes them all the more powerful and horrific. This continues for over a page. Then comes a rumination on motive that positions the manipulation and marketing of people’s emotions as the catalyst for war:
Why do we do it? Certainly there’s a rage
to injure what’s injured us. Wars
are always pitched to us that way.
The well-paid newsreaders read the reasons
On the air. And the us who are injured,
Or have been convinced we are injured,
Are always identified with virtue. It’s
That—the rage to hurt mixed up
With self-righteousness—that’s murderous.
An overt political stance is usually damaging to a poem, degrading it into the author’s personal soapbox. What Hass creates here, however, is not just polemical political speech, but a complex meditation on political and social coercion, and also on the possibility of the reader’s cooperation. Thrust into the harrowing imagery of the past few lines, the reader is undoubtedly emotionally exhausted and angry, and Hass’s warning of the dangers of rage and unchecked emotion is a powerful rebuttal to the reader’s own possible murderous thoughts. Thus we are all implicated in the devastating narrative of war.
It is a delight to have the majority of Hass’s poems at one’s fingertips, though sometimes it does seem a bit overwhelming. Perhaps this is the greatest compliment one could offer Hass: that his poems demand to be read over and over, that they are sprawling, exhaustive, and enormous, that they are self-contained worlds, microcosmic parts that give us astounding glimpses of the whole.
Erik Fuhrer graduated in 2009 with an MLitt in Modernities from the University of Glasgow. He currently resides in New York.