(cross-posted to showyourworkings)

1.

The people who lived here before us

also loved these high mountain meadows on summer mornings.

They made their way up here in easy stages

when heat began to dry the valleys out,

following the berry harvest probably and the pine buds:

climbing and making camp and gathering,

then breaking camp and climbing and making camp and gathering.

A few miles a day. They sent out the children

to dig up bulbs of the mariposa lilies that they liked to roast

at night by the fire where they sat talking about how this year

was different from last year. Told stories,

knew where they were on earth from the names,

owl moon, bear moon, gooseberry moon.

2.

Jaime de Angulo (1934) was talking to a Channel Island Indian

in a Santa Barbara bar. You tell me how your people said

the world was made. Well, the guy said, Coyote was on the mountain

and he had to pee. Wait a minute, Jaime said,

I was talking to a Pomo the other day and he said

Red Fox made the world. They say Red Fox, the guy shrugged,

we say Coyote. So, he had to pee

and he didn’t want to drown anybody, so he turned toward the place

where the ocean would be. Wait a minute, Jaime said,

if there were no people yet, how could he drown anybody?

The Channelleño got a funny look on his face. You know,

he said, when I was a kid, I wondered about that,

and I asked my father. We were living up toward Santa Ynez.

He was sitting on a bench in the yard shaving down fence posts

with an ax, and I said, how come Coyote was worried about people

when he had to pee and there were no people? The guy laughed.

And my old man looked up at me with this funny smile

and said, You know, when I was a kid, I wondered about that.

3.

Thinking about that story just now, early morning heat,

first day in the mountains, I remembered stories about sick Indians

and—in the same thought—standing on the free throw line.

St. Raphael’s parish, where the northern-most of the missions

had been, was founded as a hospital, was named for the angel

in the scriptures who healed the blind man with a fish

he laid across his eyes.—I wouldn’t mind being that age again,

hearing those stories, eyes turned upward toward the young nun

in her white, fresh-smelling, immaculately laundered robes.—

The Franciscan priests who brought their faith in God

across the Atlantic, brought with the baroque statues and metalwork crosses

and elaborately embroidered cloaks, influenza and syphilis and the coughing disease.

Which is why we settled an almost empty California.

There were drawings in the mission museum of the long, dark wards

full of small brown people, wasted, coughing into blankets,

the saintly Franciscan fathers moving patiently among them.

It would, Sister Marietta said, have broken your hearts to see it.

They meant so well, she said, and such a terrible thing

came here with their love. And I remembered how I hated it

after school—because I loved basketball practice more than anything

on earth—that I never knew if my mother was going to show up

well into one of those weeks of drinking she disappeared into,

and humiliate me in front of my classmates with her bright, confident eyes,

and slurred, though carefully pronounced words, and the appalling

impromptu sets of mismatched clothes she was given to

when she had the dim idea of making a good impression in that state.

Sometimes from the gym floor with its sweet, heady smell of varnish

I’d see her in the entryway looking for me, and I’d bounce

the ball two or three times, study the orange rim as if it were,

which it was, the true level of the world, the one sure thing

the power in my hands could summon. I’d bounce the ball

once more, feel the grain of the leather in my fingertips and shoot.

It was a perfect thing; it was almost like killing her.

4.

When we say “mother” in poems,

we usually mean some woman in her late twenties

or early thirties trying to raise a child.

We use this particular noun

to secure the pathos of the child’s point of view

and to hold her responsible.

5.

If you’re afraid now?

Fear is a teacher.

Sometimes you thought that

Nothing could reach her,

Nothing can reach you.

Wouldn’t you rather

Sit by the river, sit

On the dead bank,

Deader than winter,

Where all the roots gape?

6.

This morning in the early sun,

steam rising from the pond the color of smoky topaz,

a pair of delicate, copper-red, needle-fine insects

are mating in the unopened crown of a Shasta daisy

just outside your door. The green flowerheads look like wombs

or the upright, supplicant bulbs of a vegetal pre-erection.

The insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other

by attaching at the tail, holding utterly still, and quivering intently.

I think (on what evidence?) that they are different from us.

That they mate and are done with mating.

They don’t carry all this half-mated longing up out of childhood

and then go looking for it everywhere.

And so, I think, they can’t wound each other the way we do.

They don’t go through life dizzy or groggy with their hunger,

kill with it, smear it on everything, though it is perhaps also true

that nothing happens to them quite like what happens to us

when the blue-backed swallow dips swiftly toward the green pond

and the pond’s green-and-blue reflected swallow marries it a moment

in the reflected sky and the heart goes out to the end of the rope

it has been throwing into abyss after abyss, and a singing shimmers

from every color the morning has risen into.

My insect instructors have stilled, they are probably stuck together

in some bliss and minute pulse of after-longing

evolution worked out to suck the last juice of the world

into the receiver body. They can’t separate probably

until it is done.

In this poem Hass has so much going on – the church and Franciscan monks alongside the Native American myths and then he leaps to his mother, the drunk, his creator.

They meant so well, she said, and such a terrible thing

came here with their love. And I remembered how I hated it

after school – because I loved basketball practise more than

anything

on earth – that I never knew if my mother was going to show up… (p8)

This is so clever. Firstly he is using the Franciscan monks and the diseases they unwittingly brought with them as a metaphor for his mother’s destructive love. Secondly he is making connections between his own creator (his mother) and Coyote not wanting to drown people in piss. And then there are the line breaks! Meaning well becomes a terrible thing. He hates ‘their love’ and he loves basketball more than perhaps his mother.

Study the orange rim as if it were,

which it was, the true level of the world, the one sure thing

the power of my hands could summon. I’d bounce the ball

once more, feel the grain of the leather in my fingertips and shoot.

(p9)

I just find this astounding every time I read it. Again, the line breaks and then shooting his mother along with the ball. He has such a light touch, yet it is unflinching. He manages the whole Sharon Olds Love/Hate thing but with even more finesse and layers.

You can read Robert Haas’ Poets.org profile here and more of his poems.

Robert Hass, “Dragonflies Mating” from Sun Under Wood. Copyright © 1996 by Robert Hass.

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