By way of introduction to this month’s “Featured Selection,” first a brief appreciation of Rachel Hadas’s new book of poetry The Golden Road, from the NY Times Book Review, followed by an email interview with the poet conducted recently, the work itself, and some biographical material.
The Golden Road
By Rachel Hadas.
TriQuarterly/Northwestern University, $16.95.
Hadas is sometimes classified as a New Formalist, but it’s a misleading and restrictive label, seeing as how she has mixed free and formal verse ever since her 1975 debut, Starting From Troy. Some of her previous 14 volumes possess cool, classical surfaces and meditate like essays in abstract language. Still, her best poems have always used form to control the undercurrents of feeling and have increasingly fixed on the personal — love, loss and the sublime, including the uncanny power of dreams, her own and “some unguessed-at stranger’s.” The most powerful poems in her latest book, The Golden Road,” build from Strange Relation, her 2011 memoir of her husband’s decline into dementia. “Boston Naming Test” reprises the facts of one chapter but transforms them forcibly: her husband’s silence becomes “a sheet of paper either blank / or scribbled over with an alphabet / nobody can read” and “a calm sea / closing over your head.” Her array of metrical forms is impressive too, but she deploys them flexibly so that some seemingly free poems are really measured, with varied line lengths. This powerful, autumnal book ends elegantly: the title poem makes Hadas’s personal story universal through the archetypes of season, sunlight and a curving road, where the speaker sees her son coming the opposite way and grasps how “the living pass the dead.”
Matthew Brennan is the author of The House With the Mansard Roof, a collection of poems, and The Sea-Crossing of Saint Brendan, a verse-narrative.
Below is an email interview with the poet (RH), conducted by the editor of Plume (PL).
Plume: There is an elegiac quality to “The Golden Road” – autumnal. Would you agree?
Rachel Hadas: The Golden Road (book as a whole and title poem) are indeed and indisputably autumnal and elegiac: the season, the time in a life…and the reference near end of title poem explicitly addresses the elegiac quality of my Muse, whose cardigan might be said to be black or charcoal grey instead of dove grey. I take her to task for being so gloomy. (By the way the image and idea of the elegiacally drab cardigan came to me in an MFA poetry workshop I was teaching at Rutgers in maybe 2010.) But I’ve come to realize that she – my Muse – has always responded primarily to loss, to looking back, since my father’s death jump-started me into poetry when I was seventeen. That poetic proclivity doesn’t have to mean (I hope) that I am myself a gloom-bound character – though maybe I am.
PL: More and more, in poems like “Host At Last” and in lines like “all is vestibule” you seem to be occupying a transition-space. Care to elaborate?
RH: Transition: yes indeed. Good call. My new collection (forthcoming I am not sure when) entitled Questions in the Vestibule, contains a poem of that title. One might say that every moment in life is vestibular, but some periods feel more vestibular than others. My husband’s death in October 2011 (talk about autumnal) ushered me into a new space, which in a poem you haven’t seen I call a courtyard. But one doesn’t always know one’s in a new space. There’s intermittently a sense of emptiness, of clearing away, of waiting for what one isn’t sure. My poems always explore and express what I can only dimly grasp cognitively or analytically, so I was – poetically – wavering at a threshold, liminal being another useful word here. This intuitive approach may be what you have in mind when you refer (#13) to my thinking being inductive.
PL: Also, you occupy an after-space: something great and terrible has happened, and you seem still to be reeling from its effects, as in this from “The Cloak”: “The afterlife turns out to be not quite/an afterlife. I am alive; I live there.” Can you talk about this – is it purgatorial or bare of spiritual tone?
RH: The “after-space” you refer to here is something like the vestibular space I talk about above. As to specifics: “The Cloak” was written before, not after, something “great and terrible” happened, if by great and terrible you or I might mean my husband’s death. But the poem was written during my radical loneliness fairly late in his illness, when I may have felt I was surviving not death but, if this makes sense, ordinary life. Also, the epigraph to “The Cloak,” from Book VI of the Aeneid, “quisque suos patimur manes,” which is very hard to translate, means something like “each of us after death suffers or experiences his own ghosts/spirits.” The happy couple walking by on Broadway, whom I recognize but to whom I am invisible, seem to belong to inhabit the land of the living, while I’m a kind of shade.
PL: The poems here speak to sparseness, for example, “a peeling away” from “The Hammock”; do you feel this disencumbering is revealed in the style of your writing, or is it simply another subject?
RH: Sparseness: I hope so, at least relative to my earlier work, both stylistically and thematically. Alicia Stallings’s blurb to “The Golden Road” beautifully speaks of “a severe beauty stripped of ornament”. Again, I can only say I hope so. My revision process certainly tends toward tightening, and as I say in “The Hammock,” to which you refer, this process of stripping perhaps tends toward abstraction. My earlier poems have too many words in them, as Kay Ryan once kindly pointed out. Not that there aren’t plenty of words in “The Golden Road,” too – I’m still (obviously) drawn to forms like the sestina.
PL: You might just be the most successful employer of enjambment among currents poets – is it a tool you are conscious of in every poem?
RH: Gee, I didn’t know I was such a good enjamber. Any poet working in meter, and some poets working not in meter – any poet who read around in poetry in English -can’t help being aware of enjambment as a rhetorical as well as a technical resource. Or so I like to think.
PL: Who are you reading at the moment?
RH: I’ve recently been unwell, short hospital spell, so have been reading /rooting around for pleasure in fiction I already knew, like Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings, and one wonderful new (2008) novel, Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. Poetry: revisiting James Merrill’s beautiful poem “Days of 1964” and a number of Merrill poems that link up with it, for a presentation I was going to but can’t give at the West Chester poetry conference. And thinking about a course in Advanced Creative Nonfiction [sic] I’m supposed to be teaching at NYU next fall is sending me back to Phillip Lopate’s rich anthology The Art of the Personal Essay: Seneca, Sei Shonagon, Hazlitt…riches. Lydia Davis was saying she found Gissing to be a page-turner; maybe I’ll tackle him next, though at some point in my long past I’ve already read some Gissing. I love to read lying down, so I’m wallowing.
PL: Do you compose on a computer now? Has this had any effect on your work at all – or your life?
RH: No, I compose by hand, sometimes eight or ten or twelve drafts by hand, though at some point I put it on the computer, print it out, edit by hand, and so on. Tightening – or so I hope. With prose, like my occasional Freelance column for TLS, I turn to the computer sooner, maybe for the second draft.
PL: You seem to delight in mixing high and low culture, if those are not offensive terms, in your poems: popsicles and Homer together would not seem out of place in a Hadas poem. Does the presence of one amplify the other?
RH: Homer and popsicles is a charming juxtaposition, but really, when it comes to mixing high and low culture, I’m no match at all for John Ashbery or Anne Carson, not to mention a whole crew of poets younger than I am for whom pop culture is the water they’ve always swum in. I don’t mean only pop entertainment references, though those abound, but the kind of casual, chatty tone you find in Matthew Dickman, Jessica Greenbaum, and oh so many other good poets. Still, cell phone and computers and baseball caps – the stuff of our lives, or some of it – do seem to be working their way into my diction. Sure, I’d hope the juxtaposition or cross-fertilization is mutually reinforcing, both at the verbal and thematic level. Like enjambment, though, it’s pretty much unconscious while I’m writing.
PL: Dream: refuge from all for you? Or fountainhead? E.g., Saint-Pol Roux’s sign above his bed” The poet is working.” Or neither?
RH: Dreams: not so much refuge as poetic lab or hothouse. A staggering and perhaps increasing number of my poems start out as records or explorations of dreams, or take their imagery or even plot from dreams. Examples from The Golden Road would be “Amphora,” “The Dream Retriever,” and “Winding Stair, Lost Sneaker, Rising Tide,” and there are numerous examples in other books of mine too. As you put it: “fountainhead.” I love the idea of the “The poet is working” sign. Of the poems of mine featured in Plume, certainly at least four come out of dreams rubbing their eyes: “Beside the Bed,” “The Pink and White Wallpaper,” “The White Door,” and “The Death Row Dream.”
The White Door
I made an offering and left the shore,
then turned around, looked back.
There was nothing to fear.
I was past trouble, I had paid the price.
Meadows full of time to wander in;
what could be broken had already been.
Old losses had themselves now been misplaced.
I don’t know how to speak.
Armloads of wildflowers cover something dead.
We two struggle uphill.
What are you afraid of?
Everyone sees visions.
You must go away and then come back.
My skin was wrinkled and my hair was white.
No one admits to it.
They continue living as if they’re alone.
I only brought enough for a short stay.
My son’s bag was heavier than mine.
Behind the white door
the queen lies in her solitary bed.
Curtains open to reveal the dawn.
Sleepy afternoon in Paradise.
The tent and catering people have packed up,
the grand piano’s rolled back up its ramp
into the truck. The ashes sprinkled, family
departs, guests having left the day before.
The sight of an old sweater hung to dry
over a chairback tears the day in two.
The whole long-planned memorial: bring him back,
so we can find, then lose him once again –
was this the point? And will the chase go on
forever? Look, the sky is a confusion.
Sun’s struggling to shine against the rain;
rain, resisting, weeps into the sun.
Ghost flash: here, then gone
in Paradise this sleepy afternoon.
Crossing the Line
When was the last time my son told me his dreams?
When did I tell him mine? Replacement’s law
ordains that dream recipients change faster
than the cloudy, stubborn stuff the teller
whispers on waking. Till not long ago
I used to sleep beside a man whose dreams
at some point broke loose from narrative
and drifted slowly into still black water.
One dark December dawn, a shining presence
stood in the threshold of a seminar room
wordlessly indicating it was time
to cross the line. Which line?
Which threshold? Who am I
telling this to, I who sleep alone?
The mother I omit,
the nature and the nurture,
the bedtime reading, rocking, bouncing, singing,
colors of vowel and syllable.
Home, library, bookstore,
I skip straight to the shelf:
Aha! The reaching out,
picking up, opening,
touching, flipping, skimming,
and then the carrying
home and diving in
head first, one’s nose proverbially deep,
and surfacing from time to time for air,
and plunging back,
eyes flicking side to side and pages turning.
We call it living.
But living is what comes before the losing.
So what we do not lose we get to keep?
After the reading, re- and re-re-reading
comes the dire necessity of weeding,
picking out, lending,
wishing, remembering, forgetting –
the restless and incessant back and forthing
as long as we are living
and later maybe other fingers turning
pages, some aftertaste, some ghost-
ly taste of ownership,
some aftertaste, like loving.
Boxed into darkness, cramped in a dark corner,
you struggle to emerge as from a tomb,
unfold the tattered wrappings and step forth
into some clean new time,
oh bright-eyed mischief plotting your escape,
mercurial and restless, always drawn
onwards. Sleep’s voiceover had sage advice:
Go to an artist’s colony again.
Unlikely now, that hot remote July.
Place, season, ripeness: everything aligned
to braid our two trajectories together.
It might have been sheer happenstance, the blind
bumping of spheres. We didn’t need to know.
A path was beckoning, so on we strode,
swathed in the safety of our ignorance.
I scrambled to keep pace on the long road.
We were two children, each with a good mother;
two teachers, you with more to teach than I,
I thought, though each gave something to the other.
Now I have ample opportunity
to right the balance. Mine is to remember,
report, interpret for you, and translate;
to hold onto a sense of who you were;
to reminisce and laugh and meditate.
A heavy basket balanced on my head,
I must walk slowly so as not to spill,
crossing the threshold at a stately pace.
It’s you I carry, so I must stand tall.
So long as I am sentient – then our son –
you won’t have disappeared without a trace.
This morning I climbed from the box of dream
and heard your voice.
The Pink and White Wallpaper
By what dream witchery from the black and white
flowered wallpaper did you pull out
a single spray transformed to three dimensions,
the hairs still clinging to its bulbous root,
then courteously hand this plant to me?
Mere gallantry? Or an unsaid contention
for me to infer? And there was more:
a woman glimpsed through a half-open door
making her bed. The sheets were apple green.
Somewhere in the room a big blank screen
You brushed against, and by some sleight of hand
the figures locked in flatness behind glass
took on heft and shape before my eyes.
Beside the Bed
As I slept I thought I was awake,
though I was lying down. I was in some
cloudy border region.
Close to the bed in which I lay, a man
was sitting writing something in a notebook,
although there was no light. Leaning in
a little closer now, he was complaining
about the awkward wording on a test
administered by some neurologist.
His task was not to take the task, but give it.
A doctor then? If so,
why did he resemble my banker?
I was more and more uneasy.
Abruptly he was lying next to me,
on my left side, as my husband always had.
His legs were as long as my husband’s.
Now he was draping one of his thighs over mine.
Wordlessly I asked him to move over
so there would be room for both of us to sleep.
Now he was in the bathroom.
I didn’t want the noise of water running
to disturb my husband, who was sick.
Then I remembered: my husband was dead.
Who had been sitting by my bed?
I didn’t know him, though I thought I did.
Sunset, Anger, Sleep
We glide through the unfurling of a sunset
that has gathered into its rich folds
enough vermillion so
no one is left
out in the cold.
In yesterday’s support group, a new woman
inquired just what kind of anger someone
else was feeling, aimed at what or whom:
eyes rolling heavenward
or a fist shaken?
Here on earth
there is no no lack of anger;
its myriad shapes all coexist and flourish.
No lack of sunsets either,
though how long
since I’ve seen one?
And not merely seen
but ridden through this bath of molten gold
past lambent Trenton into Philadelphia
and even weirder splendor, so downtown
Wilmington presents as palaces
twinkling, bejeweled, out of L. Frank Baum
against a sapphire sky.
We riders plunge
into pure colors spurting
out from the track on either side
in uncanny silence. I look around:
most of my fellow passengers are sleeping.
Of weariness also
there is no shortage. Trio
of inexhaustibles it is somehow
sustaining, now the sky is almost dark,
to piece together: Sunset. Anger. Sleep.
Our waking hours are stiff with the unsaid.
Sleep’s feathery fingers can unlace the bodice of silence.
A laugh erupts that started as a snore.
This muggy August afternoon, light rain
Sparring with streaks of sun,
I am a cargo-laden barge. I am
the drowsy stream the barge is drifting down.
How to figure forth this happiness?
The safe arrival of an ardently
longed-for event? The unexpected swoop-
ing down of a surprise? Gift in the hand
is the wrong trope if the hand then closes,
its hoarder’s grasp clenched hard over the prize.
Or gratitude, or glow:
do these fit into one day’s space and stretch
its hour past recognition, or do they
work their transformation from outside,
a heavenly radiance in one strong shaft?
A change, yes, in the quality of light.
And yet light changes with each passing hour,
completes its transformation every day.
The clenched fist clutches happiness too tight.
Open your hand and let it fly away.
Rachel Hadas is a professor of English at the Newark College of Arts and Sciences of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She is also a poet, translator, and essayist. Her most recent books are The Golden Road (2012), The Ache of Appetite (2010), a collection of poems; and Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry (2011).