HOW THE WEST IS WON: FIRST SEED HASS PLAYS SONG IN FIRST ROUND

Robert Hass has three poems in Rita Dove’s anthology

SONG

Afternoon cooking in the fall sun—
who is more naked
than the man
yelling, “Hey, I’m home!”
to an empty house?
thinking because the bay is clear,
the hills in yellow heat,
& scrub oak red in gullies
that great crowds of family
should tumble from the rooms
to throw their bodies on the Papa-body,
I-am-loved.

Cat sleeps in the windowgleam,
dust motes.
On the oak table
filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
slices of green pepper
on a bone-white dish.

Robert Hass brings that California, naked, Eastern, hippie vibe better than anyone.  Robert Hass should have been in food, had he not been a poet.  His most famous poem repeats the name of a berry several times—after a bit of philosophical rumination.  He writes about politics, too, but he’s a happy guy.  “Who is more naked than a man yelling “Hey, I’m home!” to an empty house” is fantastic, but one almost wishes this were the entire poem, or that he had found a way to add a few different lines in order to make the poem more iconic, like “Red Wheel Barrow” or “I Knew A Man,” because it has that kind of potential.  But then one gets the idea a guy like Hass wouldn’t torture himself over something like this: “slices of green pepper on a bone-white dish” is finally too pleasing to a guy like Robert Hass.  Like most modern poets, he believes a glossy food magazine’s contents work great in a poem—a poem can say anything!  No Poe-aesthetics for him.

Cathy Song is famous probably because she was the youngest poet in the Norton Anthology for many years.  She has one poem in Dove’s anthology:

THE YOUNGEST DAUGHTER
The sky has been dark
for many years.
My skin has become as damp
and pale as rice paper
and feels the way
mother’s used to before the drying sun
parched it out there in the fields.
      Lately, when I touch my eyelids,
my hands react as if
I had just touched something
hot enough to burn.
My skin, aspirin colored,
tingles with migraine. Mother
has been massaging the left side of my face
especially in the evenings
when the pain flares up.
This morning
her breathing was graveled,
her voice gruff with affection
when I wheeled her into the bath.
She was in a good humor,
making jokes about her great breasts,
floating in the milky water
like two walruses,
flaccid and whiskered around the nipples.
I scrubbed them with a sour taste
in my mouth, thinking:
six children and an old man
have sucked from these brown nipples.
I was almost tender
when I came to the blue bruises
that freckle her body,
places where she has been injecting insulin
for thirty years. I soaped her slowly,
she sighed deeply, her eyes closed.
It seems it has always
been like this: the two of us
in this sunless room,
the splashing of the bathwater.
In the afternoons
when she has rested,
she prepares our ritual of tea and rice,
garnished with a shred of gingered fish,
a slice of pickled turnip,
a token for my white body.
We eat in the familiar silence.
She knows I am not to be trusted,
even now planning my escape.
As I toast to her health
with the tea she has poured,
a thousand cranes curtain the window,
fly up in a sudden breeze.
We cannot escape the pity for the aged mother and the dutiful daughter—it does us good, then, to get the comic relief of breasts “like walruses,” but even then we don’t laugh; we’re not permitted to laugh. So we remain a little disgusted in the midst of our pity. This poem reads almost like the way a Western audience would expect a modern Eastern poem to read: the “rice paper,” the “cranes,” the family piety, the duty.
Hass 67 Song 63
And here’s the whole field in the West:

WEST

1. Robert Hass
2. Sharon Olds
3. Gary Snyder
4. Rae Armantrout
5. Kay Ryan
6. Ron Silliman
7. Michael Dickman
8. Matthew Dickman
9. Joy Harjo
10. Marilyn Chin
11. Gary Soto
12. Cole Swensen
13. Heather McHugh
14. Sherman Alexie
15. Li-Young Lee
16. Cathy Song

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