Imagine Billy Collins trapped in a library of classic literature for a year–and the poems he would write after his escape. That would be Time and Materials, the latest poetry collection by Robert Hass. The title is a great metaphor, an application of a tradesman's quote for work to be rendered (his payment either by "time and materials" or a general cost estimate of the job). When I was in the graduate writing program Stanford, Hass had passed through not too many years earlier but his reputation lingered–particularly his dissertation on Dostoevsky (if I recall). His first books of poems, Field Guide, was well received, and his poems have only gotten denser, in a good way. Hass is a true literary man, adept in translations, an artist in metaphor, and with literary investigations (Milosz, Horace, Goethe, Transtromer) wide-ranging enough to make one feel adrift in a very small boat of one's own reading.
His new poems need to be read in very quiet moments with your full powers of concentration. I tried that yesterday morning, at 6 a.m., after I had made a crackling fire in my fireplace (it was -22 below up north in Minnesota), and with a strong cup of coffee in hand. One of my favorites was "Ezra Pound's Proposition" (linking child prostitutes in Bangkok to the World Bank). Another, "I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name Is Dmitri", a nod to John Ashbury's poem, is a funny, extended geneaology of a modern young waiter 'who may very well be great-grandson of the elder Karamazov brother.' That and a couple of other Hass poems cleared my head.
For a moment in my quiet, pre-dawn house I had a shooting star flash of insight into what good poems do: they remind us that the half thoughts, the fragments of apprehension, the eighth notes of understanding, the shards of insight that we quickly let go of as crazy, dangerous, or too crushingly sad to think of again let alone say aloud–that these are in fact the truths of our lives.