Meditation at Lagunitas by Robert Hass

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Analysis

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 entire section is 670 words.)