Robert Hass’s seventh poetry collection, Summer Snow: New Poems (Ecco, 2020), is his most impressive work to date, incorporating everything he does well—narrative, image, description, nature, and politics. Hass, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, the William Carlos Williams Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, who also served as the poet laureate of the United States, has solidified himself as an elite contemporary American poet. Summer Snow is a vast collection encompassing a wide range of concepts that are both universally experienced and unique to Hass’s poetic ecosystem—art, love, death, violence, and humanity’s relationship to nature on a personal and political level. In terms of poetics, Hass is a master; his poems are constructed with great care and astuteness; they engage with the poetic tradition as they highlight personal experience and reflection in ways that uplift voice and imagination. Hass’s poems are technically brilliant, but maintain a tone that is both intelligent and humble. His poems are rich and detailed, but remain sharp and clear even as they shift and meander in the most surprising and purposeful ways.
Hass’s principal strength as a poet is how he utilizes the meditative narrative. In this collection in particular, he makes great use of the long poem, which allows him plenty of space to engage with heavy subject matter in a more holistic way. In short, Hass takes his time and says all he needs to say. In this collection he pays homage to the poets who have touched his life, and gives plenty of space to examining the history of violence and protest in a world that is indifferent to activism in all its forms—physical, intellectual, and artistic. Poetically, Hass’s defining quality is how he explores nature through his meditative narrative style. “To be Accompanied by Flute and Zither” is a prose poem in ten stanzas that meander wonderfully through image, language, and a Zen-like voice. Here are the first three stanzas:
We live on a coastal hill with a view west onto a bay, a mountain, a rust-gold bridge, and the sea beyond them. There are several sleeping islands on the bay, dark with chaparral,
And east of us in summer gold hills of wild grasses with a scattering of oaks on the hillsides a green so dark they are almost blue, and with madrone and laurel in the canyons,
And east of those trees a wide valley, hot and flat, the remnant bed of torrential glacial rivers, once an immense lake, and then a bog and then a meadow so thick with wildflowers in the late spring you could hear the bee-hum before you crested the Coast Range hills to look down on it, colors so thick and variegated that they seemed to be breathing,
Here, the rhythm of the poem is established; the speaker describes the scenery as he directs the reader through it. The images are gorgeous and plentiful: “a rust-gold bridge,” “summer gold hills,” “wild grasses,” “a meadow so thick with wildflowers in late spring you could hear the bee-hum….” In the next stanza the speaker brings in civilization: “industrial farming,” “an endless rosary of shopping malls,” and “parking lots full of empty cars” as a conflicting contrast to the nature images. But then the poem continues to move into a deeper natural landscape that stimulates the senses: “mountain lakes blue-green with snow melt,” “incense cedar forests that smell of pine sap and pineapple and the scintillant high mountain air….” The poem briefly ventures back into civilization as the speaker laments how parts of this land have been turned into “a ski resort…, a bit lazy and full with tourists.” However, a wonderful shift occurs in the last three stanzas that deepens the meaning and energy of the poem:
Because the mountain is kind to hummingbirds, which can see red as the bees can’t, and for the bees the brilliant blue of the larkspur and the fuzzy soiled white of pearly everlasting, and for everyone the bright yellow monkey flower that likes the spray of plunging water,
It breathes well there, breathes, my dear, and that may be you standing in the trail above it under the sheered granite, you among buckbrush and huckleberry oak with the field guide in hand naming the lichens—
Have you noticed that this is an anniversary poem? a medicine bundle for the hard stretches when we carry what we’ve glimpsed into the grinding days down the trail there which we’ll be walking, muscles a little sore, as a breeze comes up and gives its lightness to the summer air.
The poem takes a romantic turn: “Because the mountain is kind to hummingbirds,” and ventures deeper with “It breathes well there, breathes, my dear, and that may be you standing in the trail above it…the field guide in hand…,” and becomes explicitly romantic with “Have you noticed that this is an anniversary poem?” In these last three stanzas the speaker goes from being an observant guide to addressing his beloved directly and intimately. The poem literally becomes “a medicine bundle” for his beloved, and interestingly enough, for the reader as well, who is now observing not just nature and how it is interrupted by civilization, but also how it is transformed through intimate love. This is a brilliant move on Hass’s part; the shift toward romanticism allows new meaning to flow up through the poem, creating a truly satisfying reading experience.
“Another Bouquet of Summer Flowers, or Allegory of Mortality,” is another poem in the collection that makes excellent use of meditative narrative through scarcity, obsession, and art’s relationship to nature as the poem tracks the thoughts of a speaker who inhabits a more inward, solitary, imaginative perspective. Here is the first part of the poem:
One iris upright in a clear glass vase
And tulips, seven of them,
Peach-colored petals, and the green cascade
Their overheavy heads make
As they droop. Which doesn’t seem the right word
For the way those flowers in that vase
Lean there in a tangle of green stems and green sheath-like leaves
That resembles a fall of hair.
The poem begins by focusing on a single flower and slowly moves into meditative thought. The images are sharp and include wonderful descriptions: “green cascade,” “overheavy heads,” “a tangle of green stems,” “green sheath-like leaves.” The poem continues to zoom out:
…This is a drought year,
So what you notice is the water,
The clear water in the clear vase
Which is on a windowsill. There’s a green pond beyond it,
Low this year, the creekside willows
Doubled in the water and the surface of the water very still.
It’s a windless morning. Almost July.
Behind the pond grasses climbing toward the bare grey rock
Escarpment of the mountain. The water so precious now
The speaker is not merely being descriptive, he is also making note of a drought. This causes him to become more focused on water in different locations: in the vase and in the pond. However, the poem shifts as the speaker’s mind shifts:
I thought of those Dutch painters of still lifes who excelled
At painting beads of water on the plants.
I imagined one in his somewhat cramped studio in the morning.
He’s got a commission to finish. He loves exhibitions
When the crowds lean in to his paintings, exclaiming
At how life-like the small, round, almost shimmering prisms
Of the water drops appear. He’s been working for hours now.
He can smell the spicy odor of sausages grilling in the kitchen
As he daubs a water bead onto the petal of a blue hydrangea.
In this part of the poem, the focus on water continues, but in the form of beads on plants, specifically the way Dutch painters paint them. The speaker inhabits this moment in his imagination, turning his attention to a single painter. There is an interesting relationship that occurs here between the solitary voice of the speaker in the midst of a drought, and an imagined solitary artist from the past that gets satisfaction from the effect his work has on those who view it. They are described as “crowds” which places them in the realm of spectatorship. And they are enamored by a single aspect of his art—the way he paints beads of water. It is the way he recreates this particular bit of the natural world, again and again, that makes him a master, not only to himself, but to his audience. The poem ends in a very apt way, turning away from this meditative moment completely, and back to the present:
We need water and won’t be getting it till winter
When snow begins falling in a fast flutter
Onto the pond and the mountainside,
Falling fast and then faster, thickly,
In a white blur that seems to erase the pond, the mountain.
The focus goes back to water, how badly it is needed, and when it will be coming back: “When snow begins failing in a fast flutter / Onto the pond and the mountainside….” According to the speaker, it will come in such a way that “seems to erase the pond, the mountain.” The great skill of this poem is the speaker’s movement of thought, centered on how he interacts with image, nature, art, and the imagination, and how all of these poetic elements commune together to create an experience of what it means to be solitary, to endure scarcity, to obsess over it, and to imagine what it will be like when what is scarce finally returns in full force—it drenches the landscape into beautiful oblivion.
Summer Snow is a book that could benefit from multiple analyses; it contains numerous threads that are all worth close examination. It is safe to say that this collection will come to be regarded as the definitive book for Hass. These are the poems he was meant to write, and represent who he has always been as a poet: politically, artistically, and intellectually conscious, literary-oriented and meditative, an observer of nature, history, love, and death, and a humanitarian who, through his exploration of violence and oppression, exposes it. Hass writes some of the best poetic prose that has ever been written; he takes notes, he observes, he records, and he remakes the poetic tradition. Hass is the complete poet; his work respects and transcends form; his poems are patient and thoughtful, graceful and spiritual.
August 3, 2020