It’s a common question, “who are your influences?” A question I’ve always resisted, felt mystified by. “But my poetry is my own,” I say, “I don’t imitate others. . .” Yet I can say that of all the poets I have read over the years, few have moved me as profoundly as Robert Hass. “Meditation at Lagunitas,” may have been the first poem of his that I read, and it was an astonishing discovery. And that one line within the poem: “a word is elegy to what it signifies” — that line alone has perhaps influenced my thinking about words and my use of them as much as any single line in all of poetry. So here is a poem for Robert Hass.
—for Robert Hass
You wrote: “A man leaves a woman for another and wakes up
in a room with morning light and a vase he doesn’t recognize
full of hydrangeas, mauve petals of hydrangeas.”
You might have written: A man leaves a woman for another
he’s never met and wakes up in a room drenched in moonlight
and sweat. Through the open window, the whine of mosquitoes,
the rumble of distant bullfrogs.
I wrote: A woman leaves a man for the woman he’ll never be
or the man she’ll never be. She leaves him (or her) for the tall
dark prince of her childhood, who still lurches through the rooms
of her night-dreams. She leaves behind smoke, and the confusion
of broken mirrors.
I might have written: A family looks suddenly out their window
at a great heron, gray in the rain. A vase they have never seen,
that was not on the shelf until they looked away, is encircled
with poses of human delight that have been buried in 2500 years
of rubble. The heron’s beak slips into the grass to impale a frog.
A child’s broken skull is healed.
Hydrangeas nod and turn to rust in the paling sunlight.
the room shrinks and cracks. The man will not leave her again.
She is always leaving. She has always been left. These things are.
Through the open window, a whippoorwill calls.
For a moment, the moonlight flashes
out of the damp curls
out of her parted thighs.
(The quoted lines are from Robert Hass’s “Notes on ‘Layover’,” in Sun Under Wood (New York: Ecco Press, 1996) p. 29.)