Tuesday Poem: ‘A Story About the Body’ by Robert Hass

A Story About the Body

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she mused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity–like music–withered quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl–she must have swept the corners of her studio–was full of dead bees.

‘A Story About the Body’ must be one of Hass’s most famous poems. I read it as part of a creative writing reader long before I bought his collections. It comes from Human Wishes (1989), Hass’ third collection, and a collection which has the most apt title for poetry. I think critic Dob Bogen most accurately describes the collection when he says it ‘captures both the brightness of the world and its vanishing.’ So many of these poems are concerned with loss, transience, and with the process of seeing something disappear; even in this poem the young man’s ‘radiance’ withers from his chest. In Human Wishes Hass really gets into longer lines, and an entire section is dedicated to prose poems. I can’t get enough of them–they so completely inhabit and create a world.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘The Beginning of September’ by Robert Hass

The Beginning of September

The child is looking in the mirror.
His head falls to one side, his shoulders slump.
He is practicing sadness.

He didn’t think she ought to
and she thought she should.

In the summer
peaches the color of sunrise

In the fall
plums the color of dusk

Each thing moves its own way
in the wind. Bamboo flickers,
the plum tree waves, and the loquat
is shaken.

The dangers are everywhere. Auxiliary verbs, fishbones, a fine carelessness. No one really likes the odor of geraniums, not the woman who dreams of sunlight and is always late for work nor the man who would be happy in altered circumstances. Words are abstract, but words are abstract is a dance, car crash, heart’s delight. It’s the design dumb hunger has upon the world. Nothing is severed on hot mornings when the deer nibble flower heads in a simmer of bay leaves. Somewhere in the summer dusk is the sound of children setting the table. That is mastery: spoon, knife, folded napkin, fork; glasses all around. The place for the plate is wholly imagined. Mother sits here and Father sits there and this is your place and this is mine. A good story compels you like sexual hunger but the pace is more leisurely. And there are always melons.

little mother
little dragonfly quickness of summer mornings
this is a prayer
this is the body dressed in its own warmth
at the change of seasons

There are not always melons
There are always stories

Chester found a dozen copies of his first novel in a used bookstore and took them to the counter. The owner said, “You can’t have them all,” so Chester kept five. The owner said, “That’ll be a hundred and twelve dollars.” Chester said, “What?” and the guy said, “They’re first editions, Mac, twenty bucks apiece.” And so Chester said, “Why are you charging me a hundred and twelve dollars?” The guy said, “Three of them are autographed.” Chester said, “Look, I wrote this book.” The guy said, “All right, a hundred. I won’t charge you for the autographs.”

The insides of peaches
are the color of sunrise

The outsides of plums
are the color of dusk

Here are some things to pray to in San Francisco: the bay, the mountain, the goddess of the city; remembering, forgetting, sudden pleasure, loss; sunrise and sunset; salt; the tutelary gods of Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Basque, French, Italian, and Mexican cooking; the solitude of coffeehouses and museums; the virgin, mother, and widow moons; hilliness, vistas; John McLaren; Saint Francis; the Mother of Sorrows; the rhythm of any life still whole through three generations; wine, especially zinfandel because from that Hungarian vine-slip came first a native wine not resinous and sugar-heavy; the sourdough mother, yeast and beginning; all fish and fisherman at the turning of the tide; the turning of the tide; eelgrass, oldest inhabitant; fog; seagulls; Joseph Worcester; plum blossoms; warm days in January . . .

She thought it was a good idea.
He had his doubts.

ripe blackberries

She said: reside, reside
and he said, gored heart
She said: sunlight, cypress
he said, idiot children
nibbling arsenic in flaking paint
she said: a small pool of semen
translucent on my belly
he said maybe he said

the sayings of my grandmother:
they’re the kind of people
who let blackberries rot on the vine

The child approaches the mirror very fast
then stops
and watches himself

So summer gives over –
white to the color of straw
dove gray to slate blue
a little rain
a little light on the water

I’ve spent the last four years studying American poet, Robert Hass. Over the next month I’m going to post some of my favourite Hass poems. This poem is from his collection, Praise (Ecco, 1979). There is a great recording of Hass reading this poem to an audience in Rotterdam.

For more tuesday poems check out the hub.

On finishing my thesis

Today I finished my thesis: Nature, Fidelity, and the Poetry of Robert Hass. It is comprised of:

41971 words of criticism on Robert Hass and ecocriticism.
12394 words of poetry.
Four years, four weeks, and one day.
Many tears.

When my father returned to the US university where he did his PhD, he went to the library to see how many people had checked out his thesis. In just over thirty years there had been three. Since my thesis is probably going to have a similar audience (although the poems have been published in journals and I hope two will make it into my second collection), I want to blog my acknowledgments. A thesis is not a solo effort, and without these people – especially Bryan and Jack – I could not have finished.

Here you go.

Foremost, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of my supervisors, Dr Bryan Walpert and Dr Jack Ross. Their support, unending patience and guidance not only helped me to write this thesis but helped me to see the beauty in literary theory and criticism. There were tears. There were disagreements, but without a doubt it has been my privilege to work with such sharp, funny, and impressive writers.

It is important to thank Massey University for the doctoral scholarship that enabled me to undertake this thesis. Without that essential financial support this work would not be what it is today. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

I would also like to acknowledge my writers’ group: Pip Adam, Sarah Bainbridge, Dave Fleming, Chloe Lane, Bill Nelson, Lawrence Patchett, and John Summers. Along with poet Amy Brown, they are a steadfast support in my writing life.

Last but not the least, I would like to thank my logical and biological family: my parents Pauline and Nikki for their proofreading and advice, my many friends for their support, especially Matt Bialostocki, Megan Hinge, Mike Kmiec, Sam Searle, and Andrew Smith, and my sister Jennifer Barnett-Melbye. I would also like to thank my amazing proofreader, Margaret Cahill. Finally I need to thank my husband Tim Rastall and our son Sam Rastall for their love and support throughout every day of this process.


Off into the world it goes.

Tuesday Poem: “Mowing” by Robert Frost


There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound–
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

(Source: http://www.sonnets.org/frost.htm#004)

I discovered “Mowing”, a wonderful sonnet by Robert Frost, while reading an article about using field trips to help teach nature writing (for my PhD–this is not my usual bedtime reading!). In the article, the teacher taught his students how to mow a field using a scythe. Fun. The article also talks about Frost’s dedication to factual description of the countryside. For example, he names the flower in the poem as “Pale orchises”, not accidentally, but because he wanted to be true to the field that he has mown. “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak”, he says. Robert Hass, who is the focus of my PhD thesis, is also persistent and specific in his descriptions of the natural world. I see it as a sort of homage; a purposeful naming to make others notice.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: “Smells” by Jane Buxton


I love . . .
The smell of the rain on the warm footpath,
the smell of our baby all clean from her bath,
the smell of clean sheets when Mum makes
XXmy bed,
and the smell in the kitchen when Dad’s
XXmaking bread.

I love . . .
the smell of the sea, all sharp, fresh and briny,
the smell of our Christmas tree, pungent and piny,
the smell of sweet peas climbing over the wall.
But the warm smell of horses I love best of all . . .

This sweet and nostalgic poem by Jane Buxton comes from the book 100 New Zealand Poems for Children (Random House, 1999), edited by Jo Noble and illustrated by David Elliot. Jane Buxton is a New Zealand children’s author who was born in Otaki, but currently lives in North Canterbury.

I bought 100 New Zealand Poems for Children a few month ago because I am trying to build up a library for (my son) Sam of childrens’ writing about New Zealand. I want at least some of the books he reads to be about the place he lives. And because a PhD is inescapable, being able to read about your home relates to my doctoral research on Robert Hass, who is known for writing about his home, California. In conversation with Claire Miller from GRIST magazine, Hass talks about the connection between understanding the history of a place, and our careful treatment of the land:

It felt to me then that American culture existed in a kind of dream of itself, not particularly connected to reality. One of the qualities of that dream in California was this absence of any real and fixed sense of history. It was in the 1960s that some developers out in Contra Costa county decided to name a new subdivision San Diablo, turning the devil into a saint. The historical roots of language were so shallow here. That seemed to me a symptom of our carelessness in the way we treat the American land. (Miller, par. 12)

It seems that Hass’ poetry tries to engage with “our carelessness” by writing about the natural and cultural history of California. I think that the subject allows him to represent the landscape of his home. He goes on to say: “Since most books in my childhood were published on the East Coast … my nature wasn’t represented in the world. And so one of the pleasures of writing about California and reading the few writers who were writing about California was that this world was represented” (Miller, par. 21).

I think it is important that our nature and identity are represented in the world, and for me Buxton’s poem reminds me of Christmas in Christchurch, summer sun showers, and riding my friend’s horse on Banks Peninsula. I tried to get permission to use the poem, but found it impossible to track down Buxton. In the unlikely chance that her publisher reads my blog, I ask for forgiveness in lieu of permission.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: “The Gazelle” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Gazelle

Gazella Dorcas

Enchanted thing: how can two chosen words
ever attain the harmony of pure rhyme
that pulses through you as your body stirs?
Out of your forehead branch and lyre climb,

and all your features pass in simile, through
the songs of love whose words, as light as rose-
petals, rest on the face of someone who
has put his book away and shut his eyes:

to see you: tensed, as if each leg were a gun
loaded with leaps, but not fired while your neck
holds your head still, listening: as when,

while swimming in some isolated place,
a girl hears leaves rustle, and turns to look:
the forest pool reflected in her face.

From New Poems (1907; 1908). Translated by Stephen Mitchell

As my undergraduate studies were in fine arts and museums, I don’t have an academic background in literature. This might be why I am just discovering the work of Ranier Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet who lived from 1875-1926. He wrote in German, his melodic poetry talked about the inner life, emptiness, and solitude, and he had a love affair with a woman to whom Nietzsche once proposed. It is also said he wrote poems in French because German didn’t have an exact word for absence.

My discovery of Rilke’s work came about by accident. I had ordered Stephen Mitchell’s The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, because the introduction is written by Robert Hass, one of the poets I am studying for my doctorate (I find poets can be revealing about their own work when writing about other poets). So far I am surprised by how modern Rilke’s poetry seems, at least in translation. This especially applies to his prose poetry, poetic sketches and exploration of form. I find it interesting that the original version of “The Gazelle” does not rhyme the first and third line of the last stanza. I would say this rhyme makes the ending quite powerful in the English translation. On the other hand, the original version rhymes the last two lines. This must be the compromise and complexity of translation.

For other Tuesday Poems, check out the hub.

Poetry as pick-up line?

A wonderful comment about my favourite poem in a New Yorker article about the poetry of Mark Strand and Robert Hass:

“Meditation at Lagunitas” wields its chasteness like bait: it would be just the poem to get a chaste person to go to bed with you.

Here is the full article “Late and Soon” by Dan Chiasson. If you need an in-road with a “chaste person,” here is the poem. If you would like to learn more about the poem, I suggest the chapter in the book Poetry in person : twenty-five years of conversation with America’s poets, where Hass talks about the poem.