Meditation at Lagunitas

by Robert Hass

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Robert Hass’s poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” begins with a solemn declaration: “All the new thinking is about loss.” Hass deconstructs this enervating association with loss by depicting the past as a partially eternal entity that continues to exist in consciousness, often as an object of longing. Throughout the poem, Hass delves into his meditation with remarkably descriptive language. In particular, the prominence of adjectives to illustrate insightful observations—such as “the luminous clarity” of ideas, “a thin wire of grief” in his friend’s voice, and “a violent wonder” of a former lover’s presence—are implemented to give abstract ideas a sensate grounding. The poem’s tone is therefore self-reflective, and Hass mixes literal and figurative language in a dreamy yet somber voice; in doing so, he employs amplifications in his descriptions, enhancing the poem’s contemplative mood.

Hass experiments with italics and lists for emphasis, such as in the following asyndeton: “After a while I understood that/talking this way, everything dissolves: justice, pine, hair, woman, you and I.” In this example, Hass suggests that the italicized words live outside of the poem in a conceptual realm, distinguished by its abstraction of the definitive. These lines hence have a dissolving effect. Being only one stanza, Hass’s poem establishes formal harmony with longer lines and sentences, often using enjambment to create a continuous flow of images drenched in significance. The speaker’s cascading thoughts are thus mirrored by the free verse style of the poem. In many instances, Hass’s poetry is distinguished by its jarring fusion of harsh and soft sounds:

…That the clown-

faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk

of that black birch is, by his presence,

some tragic falling off from a first world

of undivided light.

In these lines, Hass plays with alliteration and repetition, with phrases like “black birch” and “falling off from a first world.” The extended metaphor drawn in this passage relates the woodpecker to the loss of a primordial state of unification. The idea is that the particular details of the world—the behaviour of a woodpecker “probing the dead sculpted trunk”—undermines any generalized numinosity. In his precise deployment of language, Hass expounds upon the very limits of language in its capacity to capture essential feelings.

“Meditation at Lagunitas” is heavily rooted in its dissection of memory, and Hass’s gorgeously dense images paint panoramas of nostalgia. The following passage in particular demonstrates the poem’s mesmerizing stream of imagery:

I felt a violent wonder at her presence

like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river

with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,

muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish

called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.

Longing, we say, because desire is full

of endless distances.

The rich details in this remembrance portray how places with sentimental significance cement themselves in our memories. The image of the “childhood river” suggests that although time is forever forward and fleeting, memories—those places along the way—can be eternal. By following this flow of nostalgic images with the illuminating assertion, “desire is full / of endless distances,” Hass heightens the impact of this personal sentiment.

In contrast to the opening line of the poem, Hass closes with a more tranquil reflection: “There are moments when the body is as numinous / as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.” Poetry has its own flesh, distinguished in its powerful ability to illustrate memories—even if no words can fully capture a memory in full. In stating that “a word is elegy to what it signifies”—referring specifically to a blackberry—Hass suggests that the poetic impulse to name and delineate draws the mind further from its target. And yet it is a worthy act, for that very blackberry symbolizes the process of ripening. And in turn Hass’s meditative poem elucidates how poetry, as a timeless yet embodied force with its own “good flesh,” can have a replenishing influence on the soul.

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