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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Robert Hass, former poet laureate and the first person to write the Poet's Choice column, has published his first book in 10 years. Time and Materials: Poems, 1997-2005 contains a number of brooding, inventive poems that unfold over several pages. Deft variations of approach and imagination keep these poems moving. Their amplitude measures up to their classic subject: the passage of time, on both historical and personal levels. "Bush's War" meditates on the persistent mass violence and self-righteousness of a century: the new war related to the old horrors that run like a buried stream under the surfaces of a great modern city. On a personal scale, in "Then Time," a current of loss unsettles the surfaces when two people have dinner together after a long time apart.

The volume includes another kind of Hass poem: the brief work, also attentive to time, where the seasons and the natural world take on mysterious eloquence and clarity. Here are three that reflect, indirectly, on the craft of poetry. The first, recalling Hass's landmark haiku anthology, concentrates on a precise time of year. It suggests that the work of poetry, like the farmer's -- and perhaps all human work -- digs patiently, dreamily, within its mortal confines (such as furrows or lines of verse), into the cold and the dark:

IOWA, JANUARY

In the long winter nights, a farmer's dreams are narrow.

Over and over, he enters the furrow.

That rhymed couplet begins Hass's book with winter (and the first month of the calendar). Here from the middle of the volume is a poem of summer. Hass uses the name of plants expressively, the way a casting director might use faces. Nature here is attractive, significant, severe and distinctly not human:

THAT MUSIC

The creek's silver in the sun of almost August,

And bright dry air, and last runnels of snowmelt,

Percolating through the roots of mountain grasses

Vinegar weed, golden smoke, or meadow rust,

Do they confer, do the lovers' bodies

In the summer dusk, his breath, her sleeping face,

Confer -- , does the slow breeze in the pines?

If you were the interpreter. if that were your task.

Fulfillment is glancing, partial, scavenged from flux and distraction in the book's final poem:

SEPTEMBER, INVERNESS

Tomales Bay is flat blue in the Indian summer heat.

This is the time when hikers on Inverness Ridge

Stand on tiptoe to pick ripe huckleberries

That the deer can't reach. This is the season of lulls --

Egrets hunting in the tidal shallows, a ribbon

Of sandpipers fluttering over mudflats, white,

Then not. A drift of mist wisping off the bay.

This is the moment when bliss is what you glimpse

From the corner of your eye, as you drive past

Running errands, and the wind comes up,

And the surface of the water glitters hard against it.

These masterly, compressed poems from Hass's book indicate the scope and sharpness of the whole.

(Robert Hass's poems "Iowa, January," "That Music," and "September, Inverness" are from his new book, "Time and Materials: Poems, 1997-2005." HarperCollins. Copyright 2007 by Robert Hass.)

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