A regular column on poetry and motherhood
Part Three: Robert Hass, Significant Father
I have always admired Robert Hass for the women in his poems. They are more beautiful for their midlife repose and lined faces and undimmed by frank humanness, even while clipping their nails. Now I find myself recalling every instance of his children in his poems. There aren't many. Hass doesn't write poems about fatherhood in the way that, say, Rachel Zucker or Sylvia Plath or Muriel Rukeyser (in the remarkable "Nine Poems for the Unborn Child") write about motherhood. In fact he doesn't write about fatherhood. Children are one of the many weights in his poems tying language and ideas to earth, landscape, home. Yet those lines come back to me again and again when I'm with the baby.
The opening of "On the Coast Near Sausalito," the first poem in his first book, Field Guide, makes me laugh:
I won't say much for the sea
except that it was, almost,
the color of sour milk.
Almost the color of sour milk? I'd always liked that image but never quite got it. It turns out Hass wrote the poem as a graduate student at the University of Buffalo, when his kids were babies. I didn't put it all together until one morning at 6 a.m. recently as I was dumping out a bottle of milk. Suddenly I understood it—the color of that sky! But also Hass inventing the metaphor as he emptied a bottle into a sink somewhere in Buffalo, where my mother, coincidentally, was rinsing out my own bottles at roughly the same time.
In "Songs to Survive the Summer" (from Praise):
...the gray-eyed child
who said to my child: "Let's play
in my yard. It's O.K.,
my mother's dead.
This bit of overheard conversation feels exactly right to me. It's neither sweet nor grave, despite the subject matter. It captures the seriousness of children at play (people often think children laugh when they play; that's mostly not the case). There's also the idea of permission, the strongest force in a child's life. And the sweet/sad release that comes after a parent dies, when it's neither possible nor necessary anymore to ask "is it O.K. if...?" I remember when I felt that freedom for the first time, some months after my mother died. Hass makes me see that that understanding is not exclusively the province of adults.
In "Late Spring," from Human Wishes:
...and after dark in the first cool hours, your children sleep so heavily in their beds exhausted from play, it is a pleasure to watch them.
This is a long, dreamy prose poem about a time of year and a neighborhood. I first read it in my late 20s, when I had no thought yet of children. I had a sense-memory of how heavy my own limbs were after I'd played all day with my cousins. Now, when I carry my son upstairs at the end of the day, I can feel the labor of his play. And it turns out that the largest part of being a parent is just watching.
There's an excellent exchange between a mother and a teenage daughter in "Tahoe in August." You'll have to look that one up yourself. (The mother in the poem is probably Sharon Olds, with whom Hass teaches during the summer at Squaw Valley.)