KWH Pick of the Week: “Sonnet” by Robert Hass, Chosen by Ann Fisher-Wirth

Posted on May 28, 2012


Knox Writers’ House Contributor’s Pick of the Week 5/28/2012

Sonnet by Robert Hass in San Francisco, CA

Chosen by Ann Fisher-Wirth in Oxford, MS who says:

I’ve chosen Robert Hass’s poem “Sonnet” for my Weekly Pick. I like to think I know Bob Hass’s poems well, yet I didn’t pay enough attention to this one when it came out in Sun Under Wood.  Then, when I heard him read it on the Knox Writers’ House recording, I realized how lovely it is.  A broken sonnet about a broken marriage, it is a masterpiece of elegance and subtlety.

The delicate emotional tenor of “Sonnet” may be seen in a word choice in line five.  To lead into it, here are the first few lines:

            A man talking to his ex-wife on the phone.

            He has loved her voice and listens with attention

            to every modulation of its tone. Knowing

            it intimately. Not knowing what he wants

            from the sound of it, its tendered civility.

When I listened to the poem, what I heard was “tender civility.”  And it seems to me that the meaning of the poem hovers in that mishearing.  The ex-wife, who once spoke with tenderness, now tenders civility, as one gives or offers, say, money.  And what does the ex-husband want—the man who still listens so carefully to her?  He does not know. 

Rather than attempt an answer, the poem suddenly veers to what he sees as he gazes out the window: “the seed shapes / of the broken pods of ornamental trees.”  Each pod with its “four arched chambers” is like a heart, and the “pair of black tapering seeds bedded in each chamber” reminds him of “lovers or gods” lying at ease in Indian or Persian miniature paintings.  As the poem draws to a close, I think we sense two things: first, that the elegant languor of eros pervades all things; second, that only in brokenness do we fully become aware of how nature echoes the forms of our own love in what the poet calls a “wish geometry.”

 I hope you will enjoy this poem as much as I do.

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