Robert Hass (b. 1941) is another famous American poet who served as Poet Laureate of that immense country and won a Pulitzer prize. I read one of his poems today that I think is representative. In other words: vintage Hass:
Winged and acid dark
A sentence with “dappled shadow” in it.
Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.
The other man, the officer, who brought onions
and wine and sacks of flour,
the major with the swollen knee,
wanted intelligent conversation afterward.
Having no choice, she provided that, too.
Potsdamerplatz, May 1945.
When the first one was through he pried her mouth open.
Bashō told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials.
If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no one to say it
and no one to say it to.
I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied
swarming of insects near a waterfall.
Pried her mouth open and spit in it.
We pass these things on,
probably, because we are what we can imagine.
Something not sayable in the morning silence.
The mind hungering after likenesses. “Tender sky,” etc.,
curves the swallows trace in air.
Hass observes the limitations of language before giving us an incomprehensive fragment. Who is the other man and what about the supplies, the wounded major wanting conversation, and why did she have no choice? In the next sentence, the entire scene becomes clear. Potsdamerplatz, May 1945. Hitler is dead, his Reich has surrendered. The officer and the man are allied forces, making themselves comfortable on the rubble of Berlin. Wine and conversation, what more does a man need?
What about the prying open of the mouth? Looking for gold crowns? And why the Japanese names? The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings occured on August 6 and 9, 1945. Do the frenzied swarming of the insects near a waterfall refer to the nuclear event? I try to imagine, but I fail to understand why they spit in the woman’s mouth. You?
Hass seems to agree with me. He returns to the sayableness of tender sky and the curves we so easily imagine after swallows. This poem is a smart and gripping way of denoting what is unsayable about the war, and the fact that I might have completely missed what that unsayable thing is, well, that is precisely the point.