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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"The Rage to Injure What's Injured Us"--A Conversation with Robert Hass

In "Time and Materials," published in 2007, Mr. Hass addresses everything from "Poor Nietzsche in Turin . . . Dying of syphilis . . . in love with the opera of Bizet" to an early memory of his father grinding up the antidrinking drug Antabuse ("It makes you sick if you drink alcohol," he writes) and forcing his long-suffering, alcoholic mother to swallow it. Later, he watched as she sat down with a bottle of booze and "gagged and drank, Drank and gagged." In another poem, he writes of his father's death and his feelings of "love and anger and dismay and relief at the sudden peacefulness / of his face. . . ."

In a poem for his friend and longtime collaborator, Czeslaw Milosz -- who died in Krakow in 2005 at the age of 93 after living through the Nazi occupation of Poland and the rise and fall of communism -- Mr. Hass writes how Milosz "never accepted the cruelty in the frame / Of things, brooded on your century, and God the Monster, / And the smell of summer grasses in the world / That can hardly be named or remembered / Past the moment of our wading through them, / And the world's poor salvation in the word."

This idea, this lament -- "the world's poor salvation in the word," that language often fails us, yet it's our only hope for redemption -- permeates Mr. Hass's latest book, which was completed in 2005 at the height of the Iraq war. In a poem titled "Bush's War," he conflates 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the brutal history of the 20th century, when the slaughter of civilians and the "firebombing" of entire cities was commonplace. "Forty-five million, all told, in World War II," he writes. "Why do we do it?" Certainly there's a rage / To injure what's injured us."

link: The Bard of Berkeley -

Hat tip to Garrett Hongo


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