By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, May 1, 2005
A standard form for young poets these days, as the sonnet might have been for another generation, is the prose poem. It seems that most first books must contain one or two prose poems, if only to demonstrate the poet's ability to manage the form, or awareness of fashion.
Charles Baudelaire's sequence Paris Spleen seems to be the historical example that many poets follow. Robert Hass's prose poems provide a contemporary model. They reveal a command of rhythm, character and narrative economy few can match. The layered intelligence of Hass's prose poems is part of their charm, and their reflection of human character recalls Baudelaire.
In his Intimate Journals , Baudelaire writes: "Love greatly resembles an application of torture or a surgical operation." That is, "even when two lovers love passionately and are full of mutual desire, one of the two will always be cooler or less self-abandoned than the other. He or she is the surgeon or executioner; the other, the patient or victim."
In his memorable prose poem "Story About the Body," it is almost as though Hass has meditated on Baudelaire's formulation and thought further about the negotiations and reversals of love: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 made amused 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 very 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 them from the corners of her studio -- was full of dead bees.
In the poem's concluding image, and particularly in those final two syllables, Hass presents a symbolic power that recalls Baudelaire's formulation but also complicates it by suggesting something more intricate than the binary notion of agent and patient. The poem is unconventional in relation to some assumptions about the form: It tells a story, it is not fragmentary, it is more interested in the world than in its own language, it is not surreal. Hass also rises above any preening display of his own imagination. On the contrary, this is a poem in which someone other than the poet makes a powerful, manifold symbol: those bees, an image of sweetness and of death, of housecleaning and of art, of getting on with it and remembering.