Robert Hass was born in San Francisco and lives in Berkeley, California, where he teaches at the University of California. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. A MacArthur Fellow and a two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, his most recent collection of poetry is Time and Materials (Ecco, 2007), which won the 2007 National Book Award. He is married to the poet Brenda Hillman.
THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION
When I was a child my father every morning—
Some mornings, for a time, when I was ten or so,
My father gave my mother a drug called antabuse.
It makes you sick if you drink alcohol.
They were little yellow pills. He ground them
In a glass, dissolved them in water, handed her
The glass and watched her closely while she drank.
It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,
A social world, in which the men got up
And went to work, leaving the women with the children.
His wink at me was a nineteen-forties wink.
He watched her closely so she couldn’t “pull
A fast one” or “put anything over” on a pair
As shrewd as the two of us. I hear those phrases
In old movies and my mind begins to drift.
The reason he ground the medications fine
Was that the pills could be hidden under the tongue
And spit out later. The reason that this ritual
Occurred so early in the morning—I was told,
And knew it to be true—was that she could,
If she wanted, induce herself to vomit,
So she had to be watched until her system had
Absorbed the drug. Hard to render, in these lines,
The rhythm of the act. He ground two of them
To powder in a glass, filled it with water,
Handed it to her, and watched her drink.
In my memory, he’s wearing a suit, gray,
Herringbone, a white shirt she had ironed.
Some mornings, as in the comics we read
When Dagwood went off early to placate
Mr. Dithers, leaving Blondie with crusts
Of toast and yellow rivulets of egg yolk
To be cleared before she went shopping—
On what the comic called a shopping spree—
With Trixie, the next-door neighbor, my father
Would catch an early bus and leave the task
Of vigilance to me. “Keep and eye on Mama, pardner.”
You know the passage of the Aeneid? The man
Who leaves the burning city with his father
On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand,
Means to do well among the flaming arras
And the falling columns while the blind prophet,
Arms upraised, howls from the inner chamber,
“Great Troy is fallen. Great Troy is no more.”
Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world—about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I don't remember exactly when it was written. It started, I remember, from a situation that set me to thinking about double binds and why I hated being caught in them.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I don't remember this either. I tend to write drafts and then tinker with them for months. I think I wrote a first version of this poem in a sitting—the beginning and middle of it, the description of the child and the parents, and the way the comics and the epic floated in. I struggled with an ending, which I am still not thrilled with.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in both. There are different kinds of sweat and tears—the hours spent on the particular poem and the hours spent in the reading and writing and thinking involved in learning the craft. Often long hours and days and weeks of work on a poem that never works out or comes to life precedes a poem that seems to come almost fully formed. This was not an instance of that.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I worked at it. I did apply something like conscious principles to a couple of elements of the poem and think that is a subject better left offstage. Some of it is in the poem anyway, which does comment on its process.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
A couple of years, I think. I don't remember exactly when it appeared in print.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I don't have rules. I tend to let poems sit for months or years sometimes—more often than not. It's partly a matter, in a busy life, of not getting it together to send things out.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Well, there are different meanings of fact. There is objective information—the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the extent of the shrinkage of the polar icecap—which if it appears in poems which ask the reader to presume accuracy need to be accurate, and there is the kind of detail that belongs to apparently autobiographical narrative—as a poem beginning “When I was child” could or could not entail. Since I've written elsewhere about my mother's alcoholism, it seems fair for a reader to assume that this writing is governed by the rules of truth-telling that ordinary life requires of a teller of life stories. And I would feel it, therefore, as an obligation I had incurred not to pass off as my personal experience, the author's experience, what isn't. (I also understand the impulses that would lead a poet to do just that.) But what the presumption of truth-telling requires is mysterious, and it wasn't the main thing I was after. It was a condition of the writing that happened to happen. Is it important that, if the father in the poem wore gray herringbone suits, my father did? I don't think so. Does it matter whether I have made up the whole business of antabuse as a specific against alcoholism in the late 1940's and the way it operated in my family, that would matter to me. I want the reader—for better or worse—to feel the child's situation and to feel it as a situation the child has undergone and that the adult speaker is remembering. I could have found fictional ways to distance the telling so that the poem did not invite the reader to identify the speaker in the poem with the author, and I didn't do that. Which is why the question of fact and fiction, always tricky, is an appropriate one to ask about this poem, I think
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I don't. The first line is a rough pentameter and proposes a narrative, which should suggest a particular set of influences.
Do you have anyone particular in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Usually not. In this case I did.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes, I showed it to Brenda Hillman, to whom I often show work. I have had friends with whom I shared poems regularly at certain points in my life—but not lately and not when I wrote that poem.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don't have a ready answer to this question. I think each of my poems differs from every other of my poems. Easier to say the ones it is like than the ones it is not like. It is like the poems that hover around a pentameter line, like the poems with a strong narrative element, like the poems that refer to my childhood, less like the poems—most of them—that don't contain these elements.
What is American about this poem?
Autobiographical narrative, or the fiction of autobiographical narrative, which has been one of the typical—I'm not sure whether to say sites or tropes of American poetry since Howl and Life Studies—since Williams's poems about his family, really. My poem is in that way unoriginal. Also American—the material of the poem—the comics and the attention to period idioms from my parents’ generation.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Something between the two.