Borrowed Light, Ken Haas, Red Mountain Press, Seattle, Washington, 74 pages, $21.95 paperback, www.redmountainpress.us
In Borrowed Light, Ken Haas’s poems are ordered with a sensibility I wish more poets would employ. The groundwork of his aesthetic is laid for the remainder of the collection in its first poem, “Birdsong.” It reads as an ars poetica, placed at the beginning of Borrowed Light to underscore his debt to other poets, and to establish themes of gratitude and connection.
Regarding the question of nature or nurture,
we quarantined some birds at birth,
finches mostly, to see what songs
they might come to know,
whether they would sing at all.
Their brethren in the wild meanwhile
were learning many tribal hymns
for waking and working, loving and mourning.
When the culled were returned to the fold
they did have songs, only a few
of kettle and clock,
cloistered heart and challenged soul.
They were welcomed nonetheless
and taught the standards by and by
as their own songs vanished
in the mallow and cottonwood trees.
But at the moments of return
when the whole flock was gathered
frightened and still:
what strangeness, what stories!
The smart choices of diction and direction that Haas makes in “Birdsong” are emblematic of those he makes throughout this, his inaugural collection. The music in this poem anticipates poems whose sound work of rhythms and tones enact the narrative and images found therein: “Regarding / quarantined,” “birds / birth,” and “all / meanwhile / tribal / culled / fold / mallow / whole / still” are all examples of the chime of related tones. And mixing iambic and dactylic lines provides an element of gravitas that does not harden into dry diction.
Even the title, Borrowed Light, takes on new meaning with this introductory poem, positioning the poet in a place of humility. Haven’t many poems begun in “quarantine” (Dorianne Laux’s point that all poetry begins in secret), and only later did they become part of the body of “tribal hymns?” And isn’t a poet’s work transformed upon encountering the work of other members of the wider poetry community? And don’t their voices retain something of their own birth cries throughout the process? “Birdsong” is a wise choice for a first poem of a collection born and raised in a nest with mentors such as Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, Ellen Bass and others. “What strangeness, what stories!” is an apt description of Haas’s own work.
The remaining poems know where they came from and show appreciation for their prosodic sources—the light borrowed from both the canon and from Haas’s own mentors—that helped to shape the poet’s narrative material. They are aptly placed with primarily lyrical connections of familial or romantic relationships, interests spanning childhood to adulthood (music, baseball, science), or his family’s immigrant history.
Almost without exception, Haas demonstrates his ability to tell a story well, to engage his readers emotionally, while avoiding sentimentality. He uses images and language familiar (although not commonplace) to his readers, and risks some obscure (although never opaque) terms. When he speaks of things that matter most—the arts, love, death—he does not fall into abstraction, but rather shows us a saxophonist “Two hours straight, One song. / End[ing] on his knees,” or an aging father’s “soft brown leather loose-leaf binder” containing lists of where everything is and who gets what. Even if you’re not a fan of jazz or baseball, the following two poems cannot be denied because their true subjects are the same: love of an art form, and love for the players of that art, with no energy left over for spectators who watch from afar.
None of us in 1966 wanted to be a white kid
from the Bronx. So I rode the subway down
to hear the man who might make me cool.
The gasbags claimed he played higher math.
His friends said he practiced like a guy with no talent.
This cat who told Miles that once he got started
he didn’t know how to stop. Yet could start
anywhere, like with raindrops on roses,
drive past the ghost town of pride,
then bring you back safe,
to some other home.
Such a sweet tooth that his horn was often
clogged with sugar; such a soft touch
that he packed binoculars to look for stars
where you couldn’t even find the moon.
A navy man, like my dad.
Saint of a church in the city where I moved to live.
That night at the Vanguard he blew in tongues.
Two hours straight. One song.
Ended on his knees. Dropped a stitch
I can still pick up or use for grip
in any ditch, on any ledge.
He emptied his arms in a wave that even now
speaks to the kind of man I could become,
teaches what a gift is,
warns there’s little sing-along,
what just happened
and what comes next doesn’t follow,
asks if I’m in this
or just listening.
Night game at Candlestick toward the end of its days.
June Rockwell, season ticket-holder of the so-so Giants,
has lured me out to see the wretched Cubs. First date.
When I pick her up, she asks if I’ve brought my glove
and I tell her I’m from the Bronx where we do everything
with our bare hands.
Thin crowd, uneventful innings, until two out in the seventh,
when Chicago’s lumbering, chaw-spitting right fielder
nicks a rising heater that sails backward several sections
from our box seats into a circular gale like the twister
in Wizard of Oz, the ball at its apex still no real concern
Twenty rows away.
And yet, in its final moments, the object of common regard
begins to beam intently, inevitably, for my patron’s unarmed lap.
I? Bud Light in one hand, fully adorned bratwurst in the other,
no kidding, I refuse to panic, so the hot dog becomes at last
the missing glove, explodes like a grenade as the seamed orb
makes exceptional contact.
When, after a decent interval, I look up, June, standing now,
a Jackson Pollock of ballpark cuisine—tinsels of pork rind and
sauerkraut in her startled hair, glitter of mustard and relish from
brow to chin—says not a word, does not go to wash up, just
lowers her quivering body. The wind dies. The home team fails.
We do not speak on the drive back.
Ah, what might have been. But not for me. I’m romantic in that
other way. This way. For this night, no if-only will ever rival what
happened. Watch as we reach June’s flat, she turns, caked still
with the spectacle I have made of gallantry and kisses me.
Softly, briefly, decisively. Watch the fog rise to claim her
for the perfect past.
More than the obvious common love for jazz and baseball, evidenced in the lines from “Trane” (“That night at the Vanguard he blew in tongues / … /Ended on his knees. Dropped a stitch / I can still pick up…”) that mirror lines in “The Catch” (“Night game at Candlestick toward the end of its days / … /[where] the hot dog… / …explodes like a grenade as the seamed orb / makes exceptional contact”), these two poems are emblematic of the kind of connection I feel is best—discovery of connection and metaphor in the texture of reality, rather than in the making of them. And there is a lot of material in these poems that a lesser poet might have thinned out into abstraction or opined into commentary. But Haas mostly avoids both. Keeping with Pound’s advice that the natural object without abstraction is always the adequate symbol, Haas writes about the messy catch: “Ah, what might have been. But not for me. I’m romantic in that / other way. This way. For this night, no if-only will ever rival what / happened.”
There are additional delightful instances of poems that lend their light to others and then reflect that light, calling and answering across the pages of this collection in clusters. “Lottery Day, 1970,” about draft-age boys diverting their attention from the draft lottery by “taking infield practice and shagging flies,” exchanges lyrical DNA not only with “The Catch” but with “Sleeping in the Crack” about actions and objects to help distract and comfort a boy amidst real childhood dangers— “Simo’s pizza, / A Moose Skowron glove, / “Janie Siegel next door,” and “Unidentified Objects,” a poem about adult buddies playing golf as an escape from a UFO Expo.
At other times Haas lays two poems before us in the spread that illuminate one another like binary stars. This is true of the penultimate title poem, “Borrowed Light,” and the final poem, “Speaking in Tongues.”
Speaking of the moon’s indirect light from the sun that is offered up to us, the poet concludes:
Since all the pocked rock has
is offered up,
your heart tells you to say
this is everything you need,
though it is not warmth, not bread, not love.
So you borrow what has been borrowed
to disquiet the hours and ways
that go out darkly from here,
and you stitch a quilt of strange comfort
from the debt of this light,
where Washoe ghosts
truck with Donner bones
and the stricken tongues of wolves.
But, like all things in Haas’s work, each poem is carefully placed to resonate lyrically, and thus no poem can be fully appreciated alone. The title poem’s facing poem, “Speaking in Tongues” is as necessary to “Borrowed Light” as the theme of borrowed light is to the entire collection.
After the poem begins with a lover sitting up in the middle of the night “like a jackknife and says something like, I put the couch in the microwave,” the poet digresses to a college classroom where a woman stands and speaks in tongues for three minutes. This prompts a desire to sleep with her “not because I wanted the translation,” says the poet, but “because I wanted the transport— / to be that possessed, that called. The lines that follow speak to the “stricken tongues of wolves” from “Borrowed Light:”
At the dawn of my seduction by language,
I knew that its mind was not enough.
I needed someone to speak for its body,
its suet and thew, its love affair with the tongue
unvexed by meaning or context.
I need the vocables
our hirsute ancestors used before knowing
to what or whom they might wake,
the words whose work is not to tell us
but to reach us, dream to dream
in the middle of the night.
Almost all of the time, Haas’s language fulfills our most ambitious of dreams about what this collection can be. The times it fails are so few that we are startled awake to the reality that poetry is a human endeavor and, thus, imperfect.
In “Chemo and Late Love” the poet continues writing after the poem has ended with “Hilda, there was so little love in our line / that all I heard you say was suffering.” The next nine lines seem to be afterthought to this reviewer. And occasionally the diction is not as polished as we come to expect from a collection this tightly-crafted. In “Truxel Road,” for example, an otherwise fine poem, “where we quit just not to kill something” is followed three lines later with “though Pam just took cider from the shack girl.” These instances do not spoil the experience of reading “Borrowed Light.” They simply allow me to sleep at night knowing that a new poetry god has not descended to earth to humiliate the rest of us mortals.
One final criticism—the cover. That a collection of uncommonly mature poems for a first book, voiced with tight, jazzy sound work, should be represented with an unimaginative front cover is, for this reviewer, disappointing. What is inside Borrowed Light is not to be judged by what appears on the outside, except for the glowing blurbs by Ellen Bass and Joseph Millar, along with Haas’s own credentials on the back cover.
In the poem “Perfection,” Haas, in the context of a fortieth high school reunion, argues for the value of all of us—as we once were and as we have become—whether we were “the pouty ingénue,” “the over-developed blonde,” “the kid from the projects,” “the hairy one,” “the sweaty one,” or “the frail, nervous one / who rode the D train early / with the night nurses and winos, / dubbed “Hércules.” A woman rushes up calling out to the narrator of the poem “Hércules, Hércules….” She was devastated to learn that he had not become “the U.S. Ambassador to Spain,” because of his mastery of Spanish. The poem ends with
I was about to tell her she had the wrong guy—
that was another boy.
Then I remembered who we all were once.
Ken Haas has written a book of poems that helps us remember who we all were once, and in his own words from “Trane,” a book “that even now speaks to the kind of [people we] could become.” And the poet asks us all: are we in this? “Or just listening?”
Either way, Borrowed Light is essential reading.
Ken Haas has been published in more than fifty journals, including Clare, Cottonwood, Existed, Forge, The Helix, Natural Bridge, Poet Lore, Quiddity, and Spoon River. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has won the Betsy Colquitt Poetry Award, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He received a BA in History and Literature from Harvard College, and an MA in English for the University of Sussex, U.K., where he wrote his dissertation on Wallace Stevens. The son of European immigrants, Ken grew up in New York City and now lives in San Francisco where he works in healthcare and sponsors a weekly poetry writing program at UCSF Children's Hospital. www.kenhaas.org.