The Magazine

Two Routes to Reality

Kennedy sings, Hass describes, poetic truth.

Apr 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 29 • By WYATT PRUNTY
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Hass has a kaleidoscopic vision. The spirochete, from the Latin, spira, or coil, and chaeta, or bristle, is a shape found as commonly in nature as brutality is in human behavior. To wreathe is to curl, writhe, or spiral. The wreath for Nietzsche that Hass has in mind is pliant, changeable, and adaptable. It is a supple (that is, a pliant) memorial offered for Nietzsche who was twisted to madness by his disease. At the heart of all this suffering, Nietzsche's and that of modern Europe, lies a recurrent shape, whether seen in a sausage, a flower's "dangling spur," the geographical shape of Italy where fascism began, or the mobile part of syphilis.

For Hass, butchery, talons, spurs, fascist states, and a lethal disease are of a piece, as is one of our greatest strengths and failures, abstract thought--Nietzsche's ability to be in love with an opera rather than a person, for example.

X.J. Kennedy is admired for such fine early poems as "Nude Descending a Staircase" and "Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought," but his New and Selected Poems provides an impressive array of more recent work. "Fireflies," "God's Obsequies," "At the Antiques Fair," and "Secret River" are some of the most striking new poems in this collection. Of the fireflies in the first of these Kennedy says, "Somehow their incandescent dance / Obscures our dark view of the dark's / Enormity as they advance." The argument here is similar to the conclusion drawn by a Hass poem entitled, "Art and Life," which begins with a description of a painting by Vermeer and concludes, "Something stays this way, something comes alive / We cannot have, can have because we cannot have it."

Whether found in experience or in art, Kennedy and Hass agree that reality exists as it resists, stays on by standing off. Kennedy captures this irony with humor: "Concupiscent, the fireflies cruise. .  .  . They stay out late / Blinking their signs to advertise / STUD WANTED and BRIGHT MALE SEEKS MATE," while Hass catalogs what he sees, citing everything from those living in Vermeer's time to the materials used for his painting, "the brush," "volatile," "oils / Of linseed, rapseed," "essence / Of pinewood in a can of turpentine." There is a tough-minded yet celebratory quality to each of these poets.

Often Kennedy is most serious when most funny. Other times what he writes is astringently direct, "Secret River" for example:

When love's done, drooped and drowned

And buried, sleep flows by.

Scaled, tailed, and finetooth-boned,

Descending, you and I

Have left our eyes upstairs,

For what's there to remark?

Why interrupt with ears

The dumbshow of the dark?

With finning hands we stir

A petrifying river

Whose overhead and floor

Extend to touch each other.

Opposing spears of stone,

Limewater-rinsed, time-wrought,

We lengthen till we join

Our inmost tips in thought.

"Secret River" displays a concrescence reminiscent of the 17th-century metaphysical poets and their descendants, even as it maintains a reserve characteristic of Kennedy alone, including a resistance to certain hierarchies of the tradition, the church for one. When he considers higher order, Kennedy's general response is a shrugging laugh. When he turns to individuals, however, he is as compassionate as any divine could hope to be.

Often Robert Hass introduces a seemingly small but concrete subject, expatiates, and returns with something surprisingly comprehensive. He operates by description, narration, and the indirect drama of relationship. A man and a woman, in a poem entitled "Then Time," for example, have known each other for years, first as lovers then as friends. Early on when he asks, "What is this? .  .  . I can't get enough of you. .  .  . Where does this come from?" her answer is, "Self-hatred .  .  . longing for God." Later, we are told, "He decides that she thinks more symbolically / Than he does and that it seemed to have saved her, / For all her fatalism, from certain kinds of pain." The fusion of tense here ("she thinks," "it seemed") is like the fusion of understood time, the time and material of the book's title poem.

For her part, the woman, now seated across the table during dinner, lets her mind run this way: "She finds herself thinking what a literal man he is, / Notices, as if she were recalling it, his pleasure / In the menu." Again the time involved conflates ("as if she were recalling it") so then and now stand inseparable in the most realistic theater we have, understanding. This aggregating process continues until the poem ends in a series of overlays: