The first line of Robert Hass’s first collection, Field Guide, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973, is “I won’t say much for the sea.” This offhand repurposing of idiom, funny and insightful, is characteristic of his poems—of course he goes on to say a million things for and about the sea. Field Guide was acclaimed, as each succeeding book would be, for Hass’s facility in translating into poems what is ridiculously referred to as the “natural world.” In the first three poems alone, we find: steelhead, mushrooms, apricots, gulls, sea cucumbers, slugs, a walnut tree, ironwood, waxwings, pyracantha, cliffs, bluffs, artichokes, a salt creek, owl’s clover, lupine, berries, hawthorns, laurels, “clams, abalones, cockles, chitons, crabs,” salmon, swamp grass, and a skunk. The preoccupation with nonhuman life is inextricable from a compulsive onomamania: “Earth-wet, slithery, / we drifted toward the names of things”; “I recite the hard/explosive names of birds: / egret, killdeer, bittern, tern.” This impulse is explained, sort of, in “Maps”:
Of all the laws
that bind us to the past
the names of things are
When Hass’s pintails and blue-winged teals are lined up in a row, the deftness of his observations almost rivals that of the haiku masters he has so memorably translated: in a restaurant’s tank, “coppery lobsters scuttling over lobsters.” But as the above verse suggests, Hass is also given to pedantic soothsaying, telling the reader how it is in tones that suggest he is just slightly winded from having jogged down the slopes of Parnassus. The poetry takes on the tenor of the lecture hall, the quality of prose statement: Of all the laws that bind us to the past, the names of things are stubbornest. Is this true? Is it even meaningful?