Monday, September 21, 2009

Poetry at Breakfast


When I was home in San Francisco two weeks ago, I spent a foggy evening deep inside the cozy confines of one of my favorite haunts: Green Apple Books. From the time I was ten I grew up literally around the corner from this bookstore, and before that my family was a mere eight blocks away. Many of the texts for my high school English classes came from Green Apple's eclectic used fiction aisles, and as a result, at a young age I possessed some of the most interesting editions of literary classics that I've seen (including this one of The Catcher in the Rye). From hours of browsing in those pre-Amazon days, I also explored books that I might not otherwise have encountered, in particular the minor works of authors like Henry James, Mishima Yukio, and Willa Cather.

On this last trip I had no specific agenda other than to find the following text: Robert Hass's Time and Materials. Green Apple's poetry section is impressive; in fact, to my mind it is rivaled only by Cambridge's Grolier Poetry Bookshop with regard to both quality and breadth. Grolier holds a special place in my heart, too, as it's where I purchased Hass's collection of essays, Poet's Choice, when I was seventeen (a collection that is not unlike a blog in terms of its objectives and content). But I digress. Time and Materials won the National Book Award almost two years ago, and I thus could have purchased it much earlier, but I've been a little reluctant to do so. You see, Hass's text Sun Under Wood is one of my favorite books--poetry or otherwise--of all time; I love Sun Under Wood so much that I wanted to make sure I was truly ready to let another book of Hass poems into my life (crazy but true).

I first read Robert Hass at the breakfast table, when I was almost sixteen. That spring the San Francisco Chronicle had published one of Hass's poems, "Dragonflies Mating", at the back of its Sunday magazine, and one weekday morning before school, as I ate my cereal, I picked the magazine up from the table and just started to read the poem. Because no one had moved the magazine by the next morning, and because it still lay open to the "Dragonflies Mating" page, I read it again. And then the next morning, I read it again. I read the poem each morning before school that week, so that by Friday, while we drove down Sunset Boulevard to school, the lines "Wouldn't you rather / Sit by the river, sit / On the dead bank, / Deader than winter, / Where all the roots gape?" kept running through my head. In gym class that afternoon I saw the basketball rim as "the true level of the world, the one sure thing", and the Jesuits walking down the school hallways became Franciscans "who meant so well [...] and such a terrible thing / came here with their love". And then at crew practice, I watched a flock of birds fly above the lake and thought, "I think (on what evidence?) that they are different from us".

It was weird and new, this hearing a poem in my head, but it was also wonderful--by reading "Dragonflies Mating" so many times, I felt as though I had internalized the language, and I was suddenly and unexpectedly able to recognize it in the moments unfolding around me. Not long after that week, my mother gave me Sun Under Wood (which contains "Dragonflies Mating") for my birthday, and my perspective shifted yet again. The title for Hass's text, as I soon discovered, came from an anonymous Middle English poem that was reproduced at the front of the book, and which is entitled by default "Sonne Under Wode". I read this four line poem again and again; I had never encountered this type of language before, and the lines' almost childlike meter rang through my head for days (even now, out of nowhere, I sometimes sense it rising to the surface of my consciousness). Did I know, on some level, that this poem portended years of future scholarship?

Of course, I loved the other poems in Sun Under Wood, too, and some of them--"Faint Music" and "English: An Ode"--resonated with me at the same level as "Dragonflies Mating". I also found that at times of intense work, such as the nights before final exams, the poems provided me with just the right mix of story, imagery, and idea before I fell asleep. The book rested on my bedside tables in San Francisco, Palo Alto, South Lake Tahoe, Oxford, and Ithaca, and now it's with me here in New York City, where it's just been joined by Time and Materials. The two books, both published by Ecco Press, look like biblio-twins. I haven't started reading the latter text yet, but because Vermeer's "Milkmaid" is at the Met for the next several weeks, and because Hass has a poem about the painting in Time and Materials, perhaps I'll start reading it tomorrow morning--at breakfast.

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