The child brought blue clay from the creek / and the woman made two figures: a lady and a deer. / At that season deer came down from the mountain / and fed quietly in the redwood canyons. / The woman and the child regarded the figure of the lady, / the crude roundnesses, the grace, the coloring like shadow. / They were not sure where she came from, / except the child’s fetching and the woman’s hands / and the lead-blue clay of the creek / where the deer sometimes showed themselves at sundown.
CONTEXT Desmond on imitation. “The strange power of passing between poles, or receiving what is of the other, the being-there of the other as available to communicate beyond itself, the mimicking that is neither copying nor producing but somehow both and beyond both, all this is part of the enigma of imitating.” “The Intimate Universal,” p. 65.
Robert Hass has been immensely successful as a poet by developing a style which subordinates style as difference. I think of it as a bland style. It allows us to talk about poetry in terms that could not be more fundamental.
And he knows what he is doing. Take “The Image,” included by Milosz in his anthology, “A Book of Luminous Things.” It may be of interest that Hass, like Milosz a professor at The University of California, Berkeley, is a long-time collaborator with Milosz in creating Milosz’s American persona by helping him create a body of work in English out of the Polish originals that keep Milosz in the game. I put it in those economic terms not to minimize Hass’s role but to elevate it appropriately. Hass is crucial to Milosz.
In his headnote to this poem Milosz says only that in it an object, a clay figurine, and a landscape are presented simultaneously. The title, “The Image,” is in fact a sort of bland tongue-in-cheek joke. I get the joke. This poem DOES present simultaneously an object and a landscape but the narrative raises questions of extreme “universality.” This poem, a naive-sounding narrative poem, reaches back to antiquity for its bearings. What happens when we make images?
Plato and Aristotle developed the idea of imitation to discuss this problem. The history of poetry is marked by this initial hypothesis, which was not meant kindly. As readers of these essays are aware, the status of poetry in philosophy is problematic: is it a thing? Or is it more of a no-thing. Whatever its final status, it is an imitation, an image, not an original.
One of the reasons I keep reading Desmond along with a broad range of poems is that he is fascinated by imitation. The short text given above suggests why. In his language of self-and-other he describes the process of imitation as a process of passage. Everything passes, for Desmond, so imitation is pretty basic. Desmond does not follow the ancient beliefs as to the inferiority of the process to some more fundamental knowing. Imitation is central to the conversation about being.
Does Hass contribute to this conversation about being with this poem? It’s told in a quiet matter-of-fact style that raises lots of questions. The process described is a form of play. Primitive play. The characters in the story are generic—-a woman, a child, water, deer, the mountain, the provisions of a primitive landscape of mountain and river. Redwood canyons, older than old. There’s a tone of hushed wonder and of intimacy, even timelessness.
And yet it is everyday. Ordinary. (One of the philosophic conversations the poem contributes to is the question of the ordinary in our apocalyptic time, but that’s for another conversation.) The process involves the environment and different roles. A give-and-take in a real place. Humans and non-humans. Neither copying or producing in a mechanical sense but involving likeness: the woman takes the clay from the child and makes an image of a woman. Not an individual likeness, a roundness, crude yes, but possessed of a certain grace. In color shadowy.
Just an image of a woman but not a particular woman, not a self-image of the artist, the poem is not about art. When the child and the woman talk about it, in the casual way play can do several things at once because there are no strict guidelines just a general free-wheeling ongoing following of some developing plan to make a likeness. The mystery of the process is that it does not so much as subdue the materials it works with as find ways of showing them off: the clay woman retains certain qualities of lumpishness, of shadowy color.
Of grace. Grace? Grace is not a descriptive word really but an action word. Something of the playful process of making the image out of just these available media has become part of the thing (Milosz’s “object”). The aspect of grace may be the most personal word in this fable-like poem, but Hass did his darndest not to bring attention to it.
But as a poem about the process of imitation, it’s a key word. Neither copying or producing but beyond both, imitation is an enigma. Grace is one of our words associated with the enigma of creation, communication in the between. Perhaps the conversation should pick up the theme of Desmond’s “fertile void,” but we can avoid terms of art.
Was Milosz being coy when he introduced this poem as one in which “an object and a landscape are given simultaneously”? Perhaps he meant to convey a certain enigmatic richness by the verb “given.” Imitation involves an abdication of self, imitation involves “a receiving what is other.” It is enigmatic in that sense.
In the reading of poems, by the end we come to expect a shift in voice—-we say from the poet’s to the poem’s voice, but that’s just a formula. The final image of this poem has a poignancy beyond the story itself. As an image of what is beyond the poet’s capacity to say it communicates an other reality. In that sense it is not an image, not an imitation of anything, but the “real thing,” as we say.