What Light Can Do:
Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World
Robert Hass is a man of deft and vast intelligence, but unlike many writers afflicted with such acute awareness, he has kept his compassion, his open engagement with our world, remarkably intact. In his recent career-spanning collection of essays, What Light Can Do, Hass’s lyrical prowess and uncanny ability to cut to the quick of a given work of art are loosed upon an enviably erudite bevy of subjects.
What Light Can Do is ostensibly about just that; yet we are never too far from the threat of dark. Hass, perhaps most widely known via his tenure as Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997, has made a name for himself as a writer of both remarkable clarity and delightful complexity. He has taught at the University of California, Berkeley for almost a quarter century, garnering a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for his finely wrought 2007 poetry collection Time and Materials along the way. Throughout What Light Can Do, Hass reminds us that extraordinary beauty can more often than not be traced to extraordinary pain, that light could not exist without the dark, its eternal foil. While extolling the technical virtues of Eikoh Hosoe’s photographic study of Yukio Mishima—the Japanese artist whose prolific postwar output included numerous critical essays, a score or so of short story collections, and twice as many novels—we are reminded that Mishima infamously committed suicide after a perhaps purposely ill-planned attempt at a coup d’état. Mishima is quoted on the subject of seppuku: “I cannot believe in Western sincerity because it is invisible, but in medieval times we believed that sincerity resided in our entrails, and if we needed to show our sincerity, we had to cut our bellies and take out our visible sincerity.” Hass goes on to say that “Mishima’s own hand shook badly four years later when he was making a five-inch horizontal cut in his lower abdomen. Apparently the body tries to expel the knife and one has to push hard against the musculature.” This grisly description recalls, albeit much more viscerally, the writer’s own process. Hass is sincere in an age where sincerity is suspect, and his body of work and continued, if relative, popularity bear testament to the fact that there is inherent value in his approach to the craft.
The steady tendency to give full consideration to the twin currents of good and evil, light and dark, life and death, anchors this collection. Fellow poet Don Bogen, in reference to Hass’s third poetry collection, Human Wishes, writes that “Robert Hass captures both the brightness of the world and its vanishing.” In the 31 essays collected here, there is nothing approximating a weak link. This is all the more impressive given the run of artists discussed and dissected within. The subjects of these essays include no less than Anton Chekhov, Jack London, Wallace Stevens, Czeslaw Milosz, Czeslaw Milosz again (for good reason; Hass spent decades collaborating with Milosz at Berkeley, translating seven heady volumes of the Polish poet’s work), Louis Zukofsky, Allen Ginsberg, and Cormac McCarthy, to name only the writers I was already relatively familiar with when I came to this reading. Hass, in an essay on the pedagogy of poetry, elucidates in his customary eloquence another crucial aspect of this collection: “The deepest response to a work of art is, in fact, another work of art, and occasionally we can find ways of gesturing toward that transmission. The past, Eliot had said elsewhere, is modified in the guts of the living. The way a new work of art grows out of an old one.” (In fact it was W.H. Auden eulogizing W. B. Yeats who observed the transformation that occurs within an audience; Eliot so fully digested the idea that sometimes he is mistakenly given credit for it.) Hass is modified in my gut as Mishima was modified in his, and this power of exponential reproduction is one of the unique and arresting qualities of art. As Hass has Eliot remind us several times over the course of What Light Can Do, humankind cannot bear very much reality. By refracting our experience, by reviewing the reviews of previous reviewers, and so on backwards, we come to understand something of both our past and our infinitesimal present.
One of the many writers I had the pleasure of encountering for the first time in these pages is the Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun. He seems to me to share a deep kinship with Hass, who describes his own first reading of Salamun thusly: “The reader can simulate my experience by imagining him- or herself on that plane. Ordering some coffee. Glancing down at the sheer limestone ridges of the Alps, and considering this poem:
Tomaz Salamun is a monster.
Tomaz Salamun is a sphere rushing through the air.
He lies down in twilight, he swims in twilight.
People and I, we both look at him amazed,
We wish him well, maybe he is a comet.
Maybe he is a punishment from the gods,
The boundary stone of the world.
“Possibly,” the poem later continues, “he should be pressed between / glass, his photo should be taken. / He should be put in formaldehyde, so children / would look at him as they do at fetuses, / protei, and mermaids.”
Hass’s sense of wonder, often blunted by disenchantment and ironic detachment in lesser stylists, has only grown sharper over the years. He writes without pedantry, and his exuberance seems inexhaustible. For those of us more of a mind with Robinson Jeffers, one of the many Californians Hass covers, whose writings “...express a protest against human narcissism,” Hass is a refreshing reminder of what it is to celebrate the simple grace of human existence. This is not to say that life itself is graceful, that we glide sylphlike from one phase, one relationship, one home on to the next, but that we are in fact graced with being here at all. Later in the essay on Jeffers, Hass describes, across the gulf of time, the sum of Jeffers’s efforts, and you sense that Hass is writing about himself as much as anything else here. It provides an apt appraisal of what this collection means in a way to Hass and his legacy.
It is as a feeler, not a thinker, that he matters. Looking out at the Pacific landscape, with its sense of primitive violence that weather has not quieted or eroded, he found himself haunted by the riddles of desire and suffering, and he thought he saw a way out of the cycle, and the way connected to his almost mute, though intense, feeling for the natural world—for all the life outside of and imperiled by the rapacity and unconsciousness of the human usurpation of the planet. He came to feel, with tragic clarity, that human beings could be saved, if they could be saved, only by what they were destroying.