Poetic Investigations

Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)

Hass’s most famous poem and nihilism

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

Discussing apophatic form (or the question of nihilism in poetry), I often refer to meditation as a relevant discipline. I do not mean to suggest that apophatic form is experienced as part of meditation. Apophatic form is not “experienced” in the normal sense; it is not to be included in William James’s varieties of mystical experience. It is not a thing, it is a word naming something that cannot be expressed with words. The term refers to a remainder, a “that which is not consumed” in the rough-and-tumble of interpretive acts to which we subject poetry. It is, however, at this point, a piece in a discourse on nihilism. Conceptually, what is “apophatic” is what is beyond immanence yet necessary to it. It is to poetic form what creation (as in “the creation” ex nihilo) is to created things — tomatoes, toes, poems. Apophatic form is rooted in the “nihilo.”

The apophatic provides some contexts for reading one of the most popular of modern poems by one of the most popular modern poets. The poem overflows with concepts and phrases that once had a certain cache. It may be that the poem is ironic rather than sincere, but that would require a full analysis.

In “Meditation at Lagunitas” (see below) Robert Hass writes about fashionable nihilisms — “The idea, for example, that each particular erases / the luminous clarity of a general idea.” Or: “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds, / a word is elegy to what it signifies.” You will notice that these two are versions of one nihilism by which either the concept or the particular voids the other. Chapter 8 of Genealogy of Nihilism bt Conor Cunningham contains a too- condensed analysis of “this discourse of epistemic disappearance.”

He contrasts this to an experience of post-coital bliss. “I felt a violent wonder at her presence . . .” And yet, he says, “It hardly had to do with her.” (In the most accessible presentation of this famous poem, The Apples Trees at Olema (2010), this line has been misprinted as “It hardly had to with her.” Preparing to write this piece I kept rereading that line until I checked a version on-line to see what was wrong! I will forgo commenting on the heuristic possibilities of the “new” line!).

So, we may ask, what “hardly had to do with her”? What is “it”?

“Longing” hardly had to do with her? “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.” Perhaps the “we” here affords some cover to the poet, and we may guess the shambling quality is part of a persona. Perhaps. But even a persona should be believable.

So the lady is lost in the distances of longing? He had gone to some trouble to make her “present” to the reader, so we may be forgiven for pushing the poem away a bit at this point, which is toward the end.

He recovers. He says he “remembered so much.” He says, “There are moments when the body is as numinous / as words . . .” Back to that, are we: words and things? Over against the fashionable nihilisms, the poet asserts that words can be “numinous.” He even compares the human body to words, words lending the body their numinousness. The lady is just a thing without the poet’s words. Shakespeare worked over that idea with dialectical brilliance in “The Sonnets.”

But “numinous as words”?

He says, “days that are the good flesh continuing.” A dream of sustained immanence?

So much for the aporia addressed in the first half. The poem begins to feel a little anxious, not quite desperate — there is a undeniable sweetness to it — but full of itself somehow. The context is clearly one in which apophatic form may come into play, but a certain insistence seems to close that off.

Apophatics serves the mysterious singularity of the finite given. This poem struggles to argue for the luminous mortal thing against fashionable nihilisms. But like many efforts to engage the demon, one becomes entangled and compromised.

The poem ends in a kind of chant, an invocation of presence–or is it numenosity? The word made flesh? “Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings, / saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.”

Meditation at Lagunitas

All the new thinking is about loss.

In this it resembles all the old thinking.

The idea, for example, that each particular erases

the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-

faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk

of that black birch is, by his presence,

some tragic falling off from a first world

of undivided light. Or the other notion that,

because there is in this world no one thing

to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,

a word is elegy to what it signifies.

We talked about it late last night and in the voice

of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone

almost querulous. After a while I understood that,

talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,

pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman

I made love to and I remembered how, holding

her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,

I felt a violent wonder at her presence

like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river

with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,

muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish

called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.

Longing, we say, because desire is full

of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.

But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,

the thing her father said that hurt her, what

she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous

as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,

saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.


4 comments on “Hass’s most famous poem and nihilism

  1. jcn
    September 29, 2014

    Thank you, Tom. Today, Dad’s 100th birthday, the 28th day since the undertaker wheeled my mother’s shrouded body out of her hospice room and the day I told Social Security this news. Their news is that she is owed one more month’s pay at my father’s grade and a benefit for dying. Is it not strange to earn benefits and your dead spouse’s compensation when you can no longer breathe? Blackberry, blackberry, blackberry– Her last words: “thank you”.

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Tom D'Evelyn
    September 29, 2014

    Oh dear! Strange indeed. And as well transparent to the weirdness of our lives as publicly private and privately public. So glad reading this piece meant something that could be shared so memorably! Thank you Janet!


  3. jcn
    September 30, 2014

    Isn’t it at the public private boundary, where the brambles are prickly and impossibly dense, that the blackberries are sweetest?


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