Berkeley Talks transcript: Poet Laureate Robert Hass reads from new collection, ‘Summer Snow’

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

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Noah Warren: My name is Noah Warren and I’d like to welcome you to the first Lunch Poems of 2020 and a very special one. It is our honor to present Robert Hass whose name speaks for himself and I’d like, before we begin, just a few functional notes. Thank you to the University Libraries for making these events possible. To Moe’s for selling books, to you for being in attendance and of course to Bob, our founder. Before we begin, if you could silence your cell phones it’d be much appreciated. You can find this event, as past events, on our YouTube channel and there’s a sign-up sheet for our email list over by the desk if you’d like to be informed about future events. Unfortunately, Ocean Vuong has canceled for the March event so our next Lunch Poems will be Mary Jo Bang on April second and with that I’d like to welcome our director, Geoffrey O’Brien who will introduce Bob, thank you.

Geoffrey O’Brien: Thank you Noah. It seems like a few of you are familiar with this poet’s work. Because there are so many of you I wanted to just say one thing, we’re really lucky to have Moe’s here selling books, but if you all stampede over there and then ask Bob to sign it’s going to be a bit of a block situation so I think maybe Bob, can have you sign at that back table and you can go grab a book there and then bring it back to Bob over there.

Okay, let’s get started. I believe this is the launch of Bob’s new book Summer Snow, long in the making and incredibly capacious. I won’t speak too long since you’ve gotta get through all of this in the next 50 minutes. A lot of you, since you are familiar with Bob, are probably familiar with this famous dictum from Louis Zukofsky, lower limit speech, upper limit music as a description of the scope and range of poetry’s methods of saying and singing. It doesn’t quite capture Bob’s work though because he doesn’t speak or sing, he says song and he speaks singing.

He has a remarkable way of making a language that’s tensile and full of prosodies and yet still feels like down-home conversation that cats and dogs can understand. I wanna quote one moment from this book, at the end of a poem that is called “The Archeology of Plenty.” To make a saying or a singing of all you have to do, I disagree with Bob here because it’s not or, it’s and or it’s the simultaneity of those things. You’ll be reading a poem from this book or any other and you’ll think you’re getting a lecture or a confession or a monologic invitation to dialogic conversation and then you realize that they’re all in Alexandra’s right?

He is so careful about how casual his surfaces may sometimes appear. It doesn’t mean that he sometimes doesn’t approach full song and he often even alerts you when he’s going to sing when he needs to sing after talking for a while, but it’s there all the time. It’s there all the time in the same way that the world is there all the time, no matter how private or autobiographical or humble and small, the putative subject of the poem is, for Bob singing and saying and the private self, who does those things is always a porous space and an aperture on to all those to be praised in the world and all those to be lamented about its disasters. He says resolutely and subtly and humbly ethical, as he is constantly a musician, and that’s all I’m gonna say because I want to hear how he sings to us. Welcome Bob Hass.

Robert Hass: Thank you Geoffrey, thank you Noah. Thank you to the library. I see a lot of faces of people who’ve been coming to these readings on the first Thursday every month for 20 years. It’s wonderful to see you here today, thank you. I’m not really the founder of the of the Lunch Poems series which I’m told is the most visited YouTube poetry series in the English language, which is a nice thing. A guy who was then a member of the staff, Zack Rogow, and a graduate student in English, Natalie Gerber, had the idea to have a noontime series for staff and students and faculty, and they talked to Dave Doerr who was a head of development in the library, and he liked the idea and it got started and then they left, and then they asked me if I would introduce the readings.

So the first year I introduced the readings, they figured it out and then they left. Natalie is now a professor at State University of New York and the editor of the Wallace Stevens Journal and Zack is a professor at University of Alaska Anchorage and the editor of Catamaran magazine. So, they’re still with us as is Dave Doerr in spirit. I didn’t know how to begin to read today, and then I was thinking about the fact that I am a grandfather, which surprised no one and I found what grandfathers do is tell stories. And I found sometimes when I would wake in the morning after an evening of telling grandfather stories that the rhythms of grandfather storytelling would enter in my poems.

So, this is “The Grandfather’s Tale.” It’s actually called the “Four Eternities” or “The Grandfather’s Tale” because Brenda wrote a poem in which she said there were four kinds of eternity. And I thought, “Oh, my God. I’m gonna write four poems on the four kinds of eternities.”

So this is the first one, “The Grandfather’s Tale.”

“Tell a story about a princess,” she said, “one whose hair is blonde, one whose hair is red, one whose hair is black and very, very curly.” Well it was early in the time called once upon a time and a young girl, whose hair was very, very black and curly, lived high in the mountains near a Great Blue Lake. And on this particular day, she was up very early because her hair was a problem. It took forever to brush it, and she couldn’t rush it. She was the king’s trapper’s daughter, and I thought she said that this was a story about a princess. And so it will be. But on that day because it was early because her hair was very, very curly, and because she had a task she really ought to perform, the king’s trapper’s job, because she was the king’s trapper’s daughter.

“What is a trapper?” she asked. A trapper is a man whose task it is to trap small animals, so kings and queens can dress in furs. And on that day she needed her hair to be in some semblance of array because there were tasks that a king’s trapper’s daughter ought to be performing. There were ermine skins to cure and fox skins and the skins of badgers and of stoats. “What do you cure a skin of?” she asked. “Being alive,” her father had several boats and he had taken one of them across the Blue Lake, because sometimes kings and queens needed the hair of a bear to warm their beds or to keep their feet from the chill of the stones on the palace floor.

There was more for a girl with black, black hair to do in a day than a story like this can properly say. But one of the things she had absolutely to do was gather the roots to mix the tanning water. “What’s tanning water?” She was the king’s trapper’s daughter, and one of her chores by the Great Blue Lake, the lake whose blue was the icy blue of the bluest ice, was to gather the roots, lots and lots and lots and lots of elderberry and gooseberry roots, and the human shape roots of the mountain lilies to make the water, to soak the furs of the ermine and the badger and the fox and the stoat, that made them fluffy and shiny and made them last past the life of any single king or queen.

There were furs that could be seen on the backs of the most beautiful princesses for several generations. To release their shininess, the furs had to be teased and squeezed in the tanning water by the king’s trapper’s daughter and that was why in a world full of why’s and sighs and reasons for things, the fine small hands of the king’s trapper’s daughter were dyed a bright royal purple. “I think I’m going to go to sleep now,” she said. “All right my darling. You go to sleep now sweetness and tomorrow when it is still early, in the once upon a time time, we can listen to more of the story of the Great Blue Lake and the girl whose hair was very, very black.”

“Just very black,” she said “Very, very curly.”

So, saying this, so I thought well-telling, is that a ridiculous way to begin, telling fairy tales on a midday seemed okay. And then Ursula Le Guin died. Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, who was the guy who started the anthropology department at Berkeley and the Museum of Anthropology, Crowberry Museum of Anthropology, he originated. And his wife, Ursula’s mother wrote, Ishi: Last of His Tribe, the classic book of American lore about the last Yahi Indian who wandered out of the woods into Orville in 1903. Anyway, she grew up on this campus and grew up among anthropologists, and when she turned to writing science fiction, she’d married a French professor she met in Paris named Le Guin. Ursula Le Guin made her amazing stories, which enchanted me, anyway, and which the younger ones of which I read to my children was Adverse books.

So she died and I thought I should write something for her and I woke in the morning and thought all of her books are about journeys. So, don’t write an eulogy, write a journey. This is called “Silence.” Never noticed in all the years here that the light isn’t that great. They descended through a steeped file, she first delicately, breasting the thick air like a swan in muddy water, he following. They had both known the red spiders story in which death made its vow to silence.

So, they had not spoken since leaving the valley of the moss and one Polyphemus the color of shag bark, with large purplish spots on its hind wings, like a lemur’s eyes was still fixed to her shoulder, just at the neck and seemed to be staring at him. The rope bridge swayed when they traversed the chasm. He went swiftly leaping from strand to thick strand and across, he pulled hard to make the handrails taut, and though it still swung violently as she crossed, she paused halfway to let the spray of the cataracts cool her, and then finished in long strides as if she were still climbing the almost vertical jade stairs of the temple commons.

They paused to share a mango, the juices dribbling golden from her chin to his breast which made him smile, and she examining the moth whose proboscis was probing the follicle of one of her neck hairs, as it folded and unfolded its wings in flickers of what seemed sexual intentness. She brushed it off and the creature rose, circled her once, twice, and floated down the canyon. From there the path was well marked soft with pine needles in the forest and a wide swatch of road lined with the deep ruts of wagon wheels across the savanna. The wind blew east to west so their scent was behind them and the large cats if they trailed them, kept their distance and except for some few languid cries that night when they lay under the huge glittering field of the stars, they heard no trace of them, and still not speaking to one another, walking with the same nearly identical rhythmic gait. She first through the morning, he in the afternoon, they came to the pivot to the pavilion before sundown, where they bathe, burden offering of herbs, were given a light meal and when the sun had set, entered the hall for the first of the old woman’s lectures on the color of the owls.

She entered the room quite casually though with her characteristic grace, greeted some of the novices, now facing the audience, check out her white hair and sat very still for what seemed a long time, before they could hear emanating from deep in her diaphragm the humming sound that signified the letter A. The light in the room deepened to that shade of mauve adduced from the story of the color of the morning garment that the old queen wore for the boy who had had the bad luck to arouse her attention. Adduced also from the legend about the origin of the color on the throat of the Greenback thrushes that visited the islands in the spring, whose songs were said to be so inconsolable that they were imitated only by the monks, who tended the temple without images, which was dedicated to the gods of faceless longing. They absorbed the sweetness and the terror of it, but did not join in the humming, which they felt their vow aside belonged to her and to her stillness.

The part of this that’s not trying to imitate her fairy tale is, were any of you at Ursula Le Guin’s last visit to this campus? It was just a year before she died. It was in the Bechtel Auditorium up there, and she came in just like this, with her white hair, sat down, listened for a pause. It was a lovely moment.

So, the opposite of that kind of poem, I guess, would be a documentary poem about the history of guns. Which I’m now going to inflict on you, and it’s called “Dancing.” My watch, I look at the time.

So, this is dancing. Is the sound okay? There are a group of students here from Sacramento. You guys how many of you are there? Raise your hands. Welcome, very glad to have you on the campus. This is “Dancing.”

The radio clicks on. Its poor swollen America up already in busy selling the exhausting obligation of happiness, while intermittently debating whether or not a man who kills 50 people in five minutes with an automatic weapon he has bought for the purpose, is mentally ill or a terrorist or if terrorists are mentally ill, because if killing large numbers of people with sophisticated weapons is a sign of sickness, you might want to start with fire. Our earliest ancestors drawn to the warmth of it from lightning must have been the great booming flashes of it from the sky, the tree shriveled and sizzling must have been an awful power.

The odor of ozone of God’s breath, or grass fires, the wind whipping them, the animal stampeding, furious driving hard on their haunches from the terror of it, so that to fashion some campfire of burning wood, old logs must have been felt like feeding on the crumbs of the God’s power, and they would tell the story of Prometheus the thief, and the eagle that feasted on his liver, told it around a campfire must have been. And then centuries, millennia, some tribe of meticulous gatherers, some medicine woman or craftsman of metal, discovered some sands that tossed into the fire burned blue or flared green. So, simple the children could do it or some soft stone rubbed to a powder that tossed into the fire gave off a white phosphorescent glow.

The word for chemistry comes from the Greek. Some say Arabic stem associated with metalwork but it was in China 2,000 years ago that fireworks invented fire and mineral in a confined space to produce power. They knew exactly what the power of fire and water was, and the power of steam 100 BC, Julius Caesar’s day in Alexandria, Greek mathematician produced a steam-powered turbine engine, contain explode. The earliest depiction of a gunpowder weapon is an illustration of a fire lance on a mid 12th century silk banner from Don Juan. Silk and the silk road. First Arab guns in the early 14th century, the English used cannons and a siege gun in Calais in 1346. Cerignola, 1503, the first battle won by the power of rifles when Spanish arcabusters cut down Swiss pikemen and French cavalry in a battle in Southern Italy. Explosions of blood and smoke, lead balls tearing open the flesh of horses and young men, peasants mostly, farm boys recruited to the armies of their feudal overlords. How did guns come to North America? 2014, a headline, divers discover the Santa Maria. One of the ship’s Lombard cannons may have been stolen by salvage pirates off the Haitian coast where it had sunk. And Cortez took Mexico with 600 men, 17 horses, 12 cannons. And La Salle, 1679, constructed a seven cannon bark, Laguffan, and fired his cannons upon entering the continent’s interior.

The sky darkened by the terror of the birds. In the dream time, they are still rising, swarming darkening the sky. The chorus of their cries sharpening as the echo of that first astounding explosion shimmers on the waters, the crew blinking at the wind from the wings. Springfield Arsenal, 1777, Rock Island Arsenal 1862, the original Henry rifle, a 16-shot, 44 caliber, rimfire lever action, breech-loaded rifle patented, it was the age of tinkerers, by one Benjamin Tyler Henry in 1860, just in time for the Civil War. Confederate casualties in battle about 95,000. Union casualties in battle about a 110,000. Contain explode. They were throwing sand into the fire, a blue flare, an incandescent green.

The Maxim Machinegun 1914, 400 to 600 small caliber rounds per minute. The deaths in combat all sides 1914 to 1918 was 8,42,189, someone was counting. Must have been, they could send things whistling into the air by boiling water. The children around the fire must have shrieked with delight. 1920, Iraq the people of that place were “restive” under British rule and the young Winston Churchill invented the new policy of aerial policing, which amounted to bombing civilians and then pacifying them with ground troops, which led to tactic of terrorizing civilian populations in World War II. Total casualties in that war worldwide. Soldiers 21 million, civilians 27 million. They were throwing sand into the fire. The ancestor who stole lightning from the sky had his guts eaten by an eagle, spread-eagled on a rock, the great bird feasting.

They were wondering if he was a terrorist or mentally ill. London, Dresden, Berlin, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the casualties difficult to estimate. There were more people killed 100,000 in more terrifying fashion in the firebombing of Tokyo. Two arms races after the war after the ashes settled. The other industrial countries couldn’t get there fast enough, contain, burn. One scramble was for the rocket that delivered that explosion, that burns humans by the tens of thousands and poisons the earth in the process. They were wondering if the terrorist was crazy, if he was a terrorist. Maybe he was just unhappy. The other challenge afterward was construct a machine gun, a man or boy could carry, lightweight, compact, easy to assemble. First, a sergeant, Russian sergeant, a Kalashnikov, clever with guns built on a German model. Now the heavy machine gun that is the weapon of European imperialism, through which a few men trained in gunnery could slaughter native armies in Africa, in India and the mountains of Afghanistan, it became “a portable weapon a child could operate.”

The equalizer, so the undergunned Vietnamese insurgents fought off the greatest army in the world, so the Afghans fought off the Soviets using Kalashnikovs the CIA provided to them. They were throwing powder into the fire and dancing. Children’s armies in Africa toting AK-47’s that fire 30 rounds a minute. A round is a bullet. An estimated 500 million firearms on the earth, a 100 million of them are Kalashnikov style semi-automatics. They were dancing in Orlando in a club, spring night, gay pride. The relation of the total casualties to the history of the weapon that sent exploded metal into their bodies, 30 rounds a minute or 40, is a beautifully made instrument, and in America you can buy it anywhere. And into the history, they fired of the shaming culture that produced the idea of gay pride. They were mostly young men. They were dancing in the club on a spring night.

The radio clicks on, green fire, blue fire, the immense flocks of terrified birds still rising in wave after wave above the waters in the dream time, crying out sharply, as the French ship breasted the vast interior of the new land, America, a radio clicks on. The Arabs, the commentator is saying, require a heavy hand. They were dancing. That’s not a fairy tale. Anyway to go from that kind of death to maybe to dream.

So, this book begins with a poem called “First Poem.”

In the dream, he was a hawk with blood on its beak. In the dream, it was a hawk. In the dream, he was a woman naked, indolent from pleasure, a gleam of sperm on her vaginal lips. In the dream, he was a woman, he could both be the woman and see the viscous fluid in the dream. In the dream, he was a turquoise bird fashioned from blue stone by the people who dug it from the earth and believed it was the shattered sky of a far world. In the dream, he was the turquoise bird. In the dream, his feet hurt. There was a long way still to go, lizards scuttling in the dust. In the dream his feet hurt. In the dream, he was an old man, his woman gone, who woke early each day and made his pot of coffee and sliced bits of melons for the lizards and set them on the hard ground by the garden wall. In the dream, he was the old man. The calm mouth of the lizards as they waited themselves the color of dust, meant that every creature on the earth was solitary and singular.

In the dream, the woman in the elevator took out her eye. It was a moon in the dream. In the dream, there was a knock on the door and it was a troop of baking children and he said to them in mock outrage, “You scoot. This is not your day. Tuesday is your day.” And the children laughed with great good humor. Their day was Tuesday in the dream. So, you young poets who are visiting, the German poet Rilke, you will learn immediately when you go to creative writing class in college that the German poet said the three inexhaustible sources of poetry, are dreams, childhood, and art. I would have said dreams, childhood, nature, and art maybe.

So, this starts to be about nature and kind of ends up being about art. And it’s called “Nature Notes in the Morning,” and it’s little short takes. So, “Nature Notes in the Morning.”

After days of wind, no wind. The leaves of the aspen are still. The leaves of the alder and cottonwood juddering for days and cold are still. The east sides of the trees are limbed with light. Last night a stand of lodge poles lit on the west side kind of symmetry in days because they’re standing still. Just distribution theory, behavior of light. What do I know from yesterday? The bluebell of the gentian on the trail, hawk moths swarming in the scree, two drops of violet in a pool of azure, petal of the gentian. The leaves lit by the light, the rock face of the mountain gleaming and only for a second yesterday, the tanager’s yellow breast as if the gift were excessive. I’ve marked the gentians location at a turn in the trail, left side going up, right side coming down, fern shading it, incense cedar above it. Two boulders of granite, mica fleck and I still couldn’t find it on the way back down.

Edo Jakuchu, great Japanese colorist, smeared a paste of egg yolk and white paint on the back of his scrolls, and then crushed oyster shell to another paste, and added carmine for the roosters crest he painted into the soft silk. He smuggled Prussian blues from Europe. There was a Tokugawa trade embargo for the way light looked on plums. Values in the right place, the country that outlaws the use of Prussian blue. List of colors to ban from future kingdoms.

Make list here. Tara-verit, alizarin. Is that the right way to pronounce that word, are there’s painter in the room? A-lizarin? Alizarin?

I think as I read that, Donald Trump is giving his victory address. He’s probably listing the colors that he’s personally going to ban from future kingdoms. Lips, carmine, last streaks of sunset, alizarin, the old art historian.

I was going on about Cezanne and he took me into the studio and took down four tubes of shades of green, and stood me in front of an easel with the brush, and said, “Now put these on paper in small rectangular dobs so that they shimmer. And until you can do that, I say this in all friendship, ‘Shut up about Cezanne.'” That was what 40 years ago. professor Henry Schaefer Simran trained at Bauhaus, escaped the Nazis in 1939. He wore bowties and plaid shirts, wrote about perceptions. Big man full of vitality. He must be long dead. Sierra morning, bright sun, no wind. So, that’s stirring in the cottonwoods. That must be a warbler.

So, another amazing thing about getting to be in and teach at and learn in Berkeley is that scholars and poets from all over the world pass through this place and add a richness to it. And one of our special guests this semester is a Korean poet and scholar, a senior Fulbright fellow, and her name is Eun-Gwi Chung. And she translates poems from English into Korean and from Korean into English. And she volunteered to read a translation of a short poem of mine that she’s translated, and I’ll read the English, but this is she. Please welcome her. Do you want to read the Korean first?

Eun-Gwi Chung: You first.

Robert Hass: I’ll read the English. So this is actually, so this poem goes, everything we, it’s called “Cymbeline,” which is the name of one of Shakespeare’s last plays and I gave it that name because it’s a play he set in Stonehenge.

Everything we do is explaining the sunrise. Dying explains it. Making love explains it. The last place of Shakespeare explains it. We’re just as ignorant as at the beginning. We make Stonehenge over and over thinking it will do some good to know where or at least when, flame fissuring up between two stones. It lifts us as desire arches the body. Up it carries us, up and over and no one knows why or when it will stop. So, everything we do is explaining the sunrise.

Eun-Gwi Chung: Thank you so much. It’s my great honor to be here to read my own translation. I wonder how many people in this room can understand Korean language. I think Korean language is the minor minor language in the world, but I can see that at least you can feel something in this remote alienation over noble foreigners I guess. “Cymbeline.” Thank you for listening. Thank you very much. It’s a gift.

[Reads “Cymbeline” in Korean]

Robert Hass: So, I love it that in this room the great Mexican poet Puerto Lopez, Colleen May has read, Chen Li the Taiwanese poet, there’ve been Chinese, Korean, Japanese, French, German, Scottish, Welsh poets reading poems making the world of conversation together in this place. It’s a great gift. So, this is kind of playful thing.

Oh I know what I was gonna do first. So, I’ll do two more.

One of my objects in life has been to describe the weather in California. And I have a piece called “February Notebook, the Rains,” which has a bunch of little short poems, about February, but it begins with a little prose hyphen, in the days when I used to hunt ducks, the season always ended on the last day of January, and on that day, we usually hunted until it was too dark to see.

So, there was something poignant about the moment when the sun sank below the horizon and the sky turned rose, and the last ducks mostly mallards and canvasbacks, and widgeon and cinnamon teal, at that time of year, headed south. It seemed reluctantly for their winter feeding grounds in Mexico, wavering skeens of them disappearing from sight as the dark took them. Some genius at the beginning of the last century had planted Japanese plums all over the Berkeley Hills. The plum trees whose blossoming in Japanese poetry is always a symbol for the earliest, I see coming of spring.

And the Berkeley weather suited them because every year by the middle of February on a cold, sunny day the streets floated in pink and white mostly pink blossoms that seemed to hang in the air in a gelid and delicate balance, until one of the hard rains of that season came straight off the Pacific and took them down. If it happened early the trees were briefly bare again, if it happened late, the new leaves were already beginning to make coppery sheens just as the air was getting milder and the bright red flowering quinces had also begun to blossom.

One year, after I had watched the ducks disappear and was driving home and came to my street, which involved cresting a small hill, my headlights caught in a flash a glimpse of the first plum blossom on a bear tree. Last duck, first blossom and the days were getting longer.

So that’s the beginning of, actually maybe I should short… In fact for February, you need to write a valentine poem. The first poem in Emily Dickinson’s “Collected Poems,” she must have been 18, is a valentine. And it goes put down that apple Adam. And come away with me, and thou shalt have a pippin from off my father’s tree. Isn’t that amazing? I, on the contrary, was 48 or something when I wrote this.

I used to see her at the track, her streaming hair, her straight, straight back, and she became a thought of mine. St. Valentine, St. Valentine, soft her lips and sipped the wine, her soft, soft lips and sipped the wine, St. Valentine, St. Valentine. I’m gonna finish with, if there’s time. I think there’s time.

So, another of the amazing poets of this place, who read in this room was Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet. He was the guy born in 1911 and he lived through the Nazi occupation of Warsaw in Poland during the war and the Holocaust, arrived at Berkeley as an exile emigrant poet in 1960. His poems couldn’t be printed in his own country, and there was not much of an audience for Polish poetry outside of Poland.

So, he lived up here in the Berkeley Hills, and for 30 or 40 years, he wrote poems about the sun going down over the Golden Gate that nobody could read. Until in 1980, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And then people started reading his poetry. And he was my neighbor and we worked together on the translation of some of his poems into English, and I have a poem and he didn’t think about the world the way I think about and probably the way most Americans think about the world. And I’ve tried to catch that in this poem, which is called “An Argument About Poetics,” imagined at Squaw Valley after a night walk under the mountain. One of the things I’ve learned over the years about poetry readings is that the difference between reading poems on the page and poetry reading is that when you read poems on the page, you can tell how long they are.

So while you’re listening to poems, you think “Oh, my God, this could go on forever.” So this is kind of a long poem. It’s one, two, three, four, five pages. So, I’m gonna raise my hand at the end of every page, so you’ll know the arc of it. And I think it’s clear, but I’ll say it anyway: The words that I’m putting into his mouth, this is a pump about my imagination of what a conversation with him. My friend Czeslaw Milosz disapproved of surrealism.

I’ll say one other thing: The poem refers to a really wonderful and very sexy Italian painter, who lived in Paris in the 1900s, a man named Modigliani, I bet you guys have seen images of his because, he’s a much-loved painter. My friend Czeslaw Milosz disapproved of surrealism. Not hard to construct an imagination the reasons why.

Late night and late winter in Warsaw, two friends are stopped by the police of the general government. The police speak atrocious polish and because of their leather jackets, where would the two young poles get new brown leather jackets in the winter of 1943? Either they were black marketeers, the cops reasoned, or special enough to be left alone. The older cop who had been a policeman in Berlin in the quiet precincts of Charlottenburg, where he had learned to go along and get along and who wanted now only to do his job well enough to avoid being sent to the Russian front, where he’d either be blown up or lose his toes to frostbite wants nothing of this arrest. He’s the one who lets the poet slip away. The other younger, a machinist in Cologne before the war, is more ambitious. He asks the second man what he does, which for the young pole is a quandary.

Does he say he’s a philosopher which is what he thinks of is his profession or a teamster, which is how he makes his living now to avoid collaborating with the Germans. And secondly, should he answer him in Polish or in his quite serviceable German? He’s completing after work in his drafty garret room, a treatise on the Apollonian and Dionysiac personalities described by Frederick Nietzsche from a partly Marxist, partly Capitalistic perspective. He feels instinctively that the danger lies in claiming a superior social status, and so he says in Polish, that he’s a teamster, and the cop thinks, “Aha, black market” and takes him in.

He’s interrogated, turned over to the SS, beaten, interrogated some more, identified as a communist, and as an intellectual, and sent east to Auschwitz, where he eventually dies, shot some of the stories say, wasted by typhus and diarrhea say the others. The poet here’s one of these versions of the news on the same spring day that he is contemplating a large polished porcelain giraffe bobbing up and down to the strains of the Vienna waltz on a holiday carousel, while gunfire crackles on the other side of the ghetto ball wall several blocks away. Warsaw had been a Russian garrison town for a century.

Now it’s a German garrison town and the pretty polish girl on the giraffe is licking a pink cloud of cotton candy and flirting with the German officer on the zebra, which is also bobbing up and down, and the sheen on his high black boots, the poet notices this involuntarily, has picked up the reflection of the sun and the small pools of spring rain on the warped tarmac apron of the carousel. After that he doesn’t want to read about French poets walking lobsters on a leash. And he doesn’t want to seem to celebrate the fact that the world makes no sense. This is how anyway I imagined the state of mind produced by the fragments of the stories he would tell me, and here inference and anecdote give way to argument.

I would quote Andre Breton to him in the English translation. My wife with the armpits of metal trap in St. John’s Eve, I’d croon to him, and he would say, “Well yes of course. I sent two armpits.” And metaphors at which Brittonic sell just as Modigliani excelled at armpits. Who does not love metaphor? It’s quickness that gives us the world to taste with our common senses. I’ll tell you what terrifies me. It is the idea that this is like that, is like this is like that. Could be all of the story? Could be all of the story, endlessly repeated.

The poor human imagination having evolved, this brilliant swiftness of perception, and then been stuck there like a hamster in a cage, groping in the endless turnstiles of resemblance. We are to celebrate this as a final conquest of absurdity, by absurdity? The armpits of those women in Modigliani’s paintings on the contrary, are the hollows of their arms, like this perhaps or like that but finally this woman exposing to us this tender nest or dark sweetness of a wet duck’s feather tuft of hair in a gesture notice that lifts the breasts lightly, indolently and lifts the rosy nipple and offers it to us.

One of the gifts also sunrise, the scent of linen, of the air before first snow that the world has to give poor mortals among the terrors and confusions of being what we are. Well I might have said if you permit me to get technical, Modigliani is making a generalized representation of the idea of a particular woman. He exactly, a particular being. General because being this and not that, this not like that, this one mortal thing is what mortality has given us in common. And this is the mallo-ssian religion? “Yes,” he laughs. “In my religion, if we are going to starve, we will starve on the pairs of Cezanne and the apples of Chardanne.”

He squints a little. In my religion metaphor makes us ache because things are, and are what they are and perish. Let us not neglect to consider the slow withering of the pale skin of that girl in her nest of lymph nodes and the pheromones of love and fear. And we mustn’t fail to mention lymphatic cancers, nature’s brutally stupid way of clearing the earth for organism-free temporarily from withering and disease and the misfiring of the avidity to reproduce, which is a special trick of the cells we were made of in some chemical slime. And on the subject of armpits, let’s not neglect the distinctive smell of fear, which reminds us that in Mr. Darwin’s horrific scheme, we are to find beautiful the fact that among the higher mammals the sauce that gives spice to their meat is the adrenaline of pure terror, or worse the adrenaline of the exhilaration of the chase and then of terror and for all we know, despair has a taste in the prey they are devouring. Nature is after all chemistry and chemistry is this becomes that becomes this becomes that endlessly through endless witherings, endless contortions of mammal and reptile and insect suffering in fear. What does it know about her armpit?

That breasts, those lips, turned to the mirror for glistening and reddening in the way, that girl she who did not feel pretty as a girl, examines her plucked, arched, perfectly elegant eyebrow and lightly pats the slick set of her hair. And 1910 said, that decades said no others of her thick auburn hair. Do you know who she was? It sounds like you do, I asked suddenly curious. Well there were two women. Jeanne Hebuterne who killed herself, threw herself out a window, she was pregnant with his child the year after Modigliani died. she was French. Our odalisque of the raised arms was Lunia Czechovska. Modigliani’s dealer Zborowski, was a poet, a minor one and he introduced Lunia to the painter. Zborowski was a friend of my uncle but he died the year before I arrived in Paris that first time.

So, I never met him but I did meet Czechovska. You met Czechovska? She had me to tea. I was 21. She must have been about 40, thick in the waist and looked it, it was winter and she wore tweed. She tested me by conducting our interviews mostly about my uncle’s poetry, and Zborowski’s entirely in French. I remember thinking that her hands looked old. Early arthritis perhaps and were somehow beautiful, something delicate in the way she served the little Noel cakes and the tea which I devoured. I was living on my student stipend and then felt humiliated when I saw that I’d cleared the plate before she touched it.

He laughed and I remember her scent. Amaryllis, the apartment near the bookstore en route to Pootron smelled of the ginger in the cakes and black tea and her scent of amaryllis like dry summer grass. Joseph was buried in a crypt in the Cracovian Church of Saint Peter of the Rock among other Polish notables. I hated the idea of it, and still do that his particular body is lying there in his cellar of cold marble and old bones under the weight of 2,000 years of the Catholic Church. I’m thinking about this still years later imagining this conversation with him in the Sierra dark under the huge mass shadow Eva mountain and the glittering stars, not liking the fact that it is perhaps what he would have wanted. You should have been buried still talking to him, on a grassy hillside open to the sun, the Lithuanian sun, the peasants carved on crosses in the church yards in your poems, in your childhood, and what you called in one poem the frail light of birches.

You could have been buried under the frail light of birches and he might have said, no. He might have said I choose marble in the Catholic Church because they say no to natural beauty that lures us and kills us. I say no until poor Modigliani and Zborowski and Czechowska, the girl of the raised arms and breasts and the grown woman with her ginger cakes and already liver-spotted hands, and Jeanne Hebuterne and her unborn child have risen from the dead. And I say there are other ways of thinking about this. You’ve described headlights sweeping a field on a summer night, you remember? I can quote the lines to you. You said you could sense the heartbeat of the living and the dead. It was a night in July, he said, in Pennsylvania, to me an almost inconceivably romantic name and the air was humid and smelled of wet earth after rain. I remember that night very well. The lines not so much.

Thank you all very much. Thanks everybody.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Podcast outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can find more talks with transcripts at