Literature 11-18-2008

LITERATURE: Familiar Pleasures

Poet Connie Wanek reflects on pleasures to be found in the lyrical new collection by Margaret Hasse (a multiple What Light winner!), "Milk and Tides" (Nodin Press, 2008)


IF POETS WRITE (AS I BELIEVE THEY VERY OFTEN DO) to explore and make sense of their own lives—and, by extension, all of life—then Margaret Hasse has managed to put her days and nights—and, by extension, ours—into remarkable order and clarity.

Her new book of poems from Nodin Press, Milk and Tides, is her first since In A Sheep’s Eye, Darling (1988), though she has published regularly and been widely anthologized during the intervening years. Milk and Tides has a novel’s coherence: a prologue, two sections of poetry with a strong narrative element, and an epilogue. The first section, entitled “Milk,” concerns the adoption and rearing of two sons; the second section, “Tides,” describes a middle-aged woman’s reckonings as, after the intense demands of motherhood, she examines where she came from, where she is now, and where, inevitably, she is going.

Generally it’s wise to avoid too close a conflation of the first person singular, the “I” (or eye) of the poem, and the poet herself. However, as I read Milk and Tides, I felt I was getting to know Margaret Hasse, and happily so. The poems are friendly, confidential, generous, and amusing; reading the book is like spending an afternoon with a witty acquaintance, a soon-to-be friend, as she shares her best stories with you. “Tomato Watch,” for instance, is a charming poem made of the adorable (and sometimes stunningly apt) language accidents of a child, and “Note Printed to His Father: Sew Woof Bage on Cub Scot Unform” echoes that charm. Hasse has a light, sure touch here.

The subject matter in Milk and Tides feels familiar, in at least two senses of that word, but the poems “breathe” (Emily Dickinson’s expression) because of Hasse’s inventive imagery and the depth of her perception. In the first section, “Milk,” the poem “Without” begins with a dying hamster nipping the hand that held her, but widens into recollections of a father’s last days. Hasse says:

         …my father

         in the agony of his long death
         attacked his family with words.
         In the hospital, when we urged
         him to sit up, he spat out:
         You can’t make me happy,
         so that we’d leave him alone

         with the right to his own death
         and not the death
         we thought he should have.

Powerful lines and a penetrating insight.

But Hasse’s images can also simply delight the reader. In “Forgetfulness in a Hardware Store When Seeking a Sillcock for an Outdoor Water Faucet” (a playful nod here to the expositional titles of Li Bai, Du Fu and other ancient Chinese poets), she says she “imagine(s)/watering hydrangea with big blue heads/ like a bouquet of elderly women.” She uses appealing sensory detail: a “hiccup’s happy cork,” a bird’s “riffraff of feathers,” “the smoke of roasted pumpkin” from Halloween jack-o-lanterns. Not everyone responds to figurative language as I do, of course, but when it’s apt and original, its richness is surely one of poetry’s chief attractions. I believe it is this hallmark characteristic of poetry, which involves close observation and a leap of the imagination, that “buffs the windows of the senses back to transparency,” as the critic Sven Birkerts put it, employing his own perfect metaphor.

Hasse’s lines can be very lyrical, especially when describing a physical landscape. Here are lines from “A Place You’ll Never Leave”:

         Flocks of birds muster in the sky along one blade of
                   fall to pieces over a field
                             of black calves and their grazing mothers.

The poet is also funny, especially in the first section which describes life with young children; but she’s equally witty later in the collection, as here, in the first stanza of the wonderful “Early Rusted Lilacs Send Us North”:

         Disappointed when the lilacs
         rusted so quickly this spring,
         we started to see ourselves,
         my friend and I, as women
         of grey-streaked hair with whom
         only the old butcher flirts.

Hasse advises her aging contemporaries to “Make yourself last long like a popsicle.” As I read the epilogue, the long poem, “Life in Reverse,” my smile grew broader and broader. Her relaxed diction (here she uses, for instance, the word “yucky”) brings the poem out of the realm of academia and abstraction.

Poetry appears to be a most intimate art—perhaps the most personal. Yet consider Rembrandt’s self-portraits, or those of Frida Kahlo. Clearly they seem unguarded invitations into the psyche of the artist. The distance between poet and reader collapses in Milk and Tides, too. Hasse’s young son says, wonderingly, “But did you know that we are strangers/ to other people?” Hasse’s warmth and generosity in this new book make his observation appear to be much less true than it is.

About the reviewer: Connie Wanek is the author of two books of poems, Bonfire and Hartley Field, with a third forthcoming next year from Copper Canyon Press. She also co-edited To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-Territorial Days to the Present. She was a 2006 Witter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress.

Connie Wanek

I have been writing poetry, mostly, all my life.  Recently I published a small book of prose called Summer Cars.  My three books of poems are Bonfire, Hartley Field, and On Speaking Terms, and in the fall of 2015 I’m going to have a new collection: Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems, from the University of Nebraska Press.  Anyone interested can find out more at my website: Thanks! …   read more