Samuel Hazo at Ninety-two: Still Squaring Off with That Trickster, Time

The Next Time We Saw Paris
by Samuel Hazo
(Wiseblood Books, 2020, 98 pages, $15 paperback, $27 hardcover)

A new Samuel Hazo collection of poems is always good but never news. Since Sheed and Ward published his first poetry collection in 1958, Hazo has authored nearly sixty more books of poetry, fiction, plays, essays, memoirs, translations, and criticism. The widely translated Hazo has earned an impressive collection of professional and civic distinctions and prizes, as well as a dozen honorary doctorates from universities across the country. He taught English at Duquesne University for forty-three years and is now Duquesne’s McAnulty Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus. He was Pennsylvania Poet Laureate for ten years. A Pittsburgh boy, Hazo founded the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh in 1966 and directed it until 2009. The Forum brought more than 800 internationally acclaimed poets—Nobel winners, Pulitzer winners, U.S. Poet Laureates—to Pittsburgh for public readings.

In the past ten years alone, Hazo has published eight books of poetry, two books each of fiction and essays, a critical book on Jacques Maritain (enthusiastically endorsed by Maritain himself), and an updated memoir which won a 2018 Independent Publisher Book Award for creative non-fiction. There is almost nowhere in the world Hazo hasn’t traveled and almost nothing in the world of letters with which he has not been involved. Like his contemporary Clint Eastwood, Hazo has drawn from some bottomless well of creativity and energy over the decades.

“Over the decades.” Yes. The overall theme of The Next Time We Saw Paris is the radical, seductive, trickster nature of time (and its minion, memory): how it unpredictably manipulates the past, hiding or revealing, diminishing or emphasizing, erasing or repeating, transmogrifying or solidifying events, emotions, and meaning. For better or worse, time can deceive an individual, a nation, and a world. Hazo marvels at it all, even as he objects.

His politics surface in some of these poems. It’s a general rule that politics and poetry don’t play well together. Hazo leans left, but in both left- and right-leaning poets, the question is always the same: which will prevail, the politics or the poetry? When Hazo is not being political—when he is writing with love or nostalgia or wonder or grief—the poet and the poet’s judgment guide the poem and lovely things happen. When, however, he narrows his poetic vision to a point of partisan pique or broadens it into political cliché, the poetry is diminished. A poet needs humility in the face of inspiration, as well as poetic submission: the willingness simultaneously to be led by and to lead the poem. It’s a delicate give-and-take. Strong opinion, outrage, resentment, or a feeling of righteousness will usually defeat the Muse. Yeats, in “The Second Coming,” wrote his best poem—one of the world’s best poems—partly as a political cri de coeur, but it was a miracle. Mere mortals should not expect the same results.

The Next Time We Saw Paris is free verse, stirred, not shaken—with a twist. It is spare and yet often full of cadence which is sometimes iambic. The simplicity of the language comes from short sentences and short words, both rare these days. A good example of Hazo’s skill at creating the sound of effortlessness may be found in the closing lines of “By Chance”:

What happens without notice
…..or acclaim reminds me how
…..a ship that’s spotted by a man
…..marooned for years but saved
…..can almost civilize the sea.

He also differs from many other free-verse poets in his restrained, judicial use of rhyme. Yes, rhyme. It doesn’t appear in every poem; when it does, it’s a light touch, the lightest, often (but not always) at the close. Rhyme can be effective in wrapping up a non-rhyming poem; done well, it signals the end organically as the listener senses a shift and a closure. In the following poem, the final two lines of rhymed iambic tetrameter offer an unmistakable fin.

Mapledom

Their branches beckon like the arms
…..of ballerinas.
…………………………From May to October
…..their leaves brighten from burgundy
…..to orange to tan.
……………………………..In the newsworthy
…..world of havoc and other
…..distractions, maples create
…..no headlines.
…………………………Although they’ve sieved
…..the wind through fifty years
…..of war after war where millions
…..died for nothing, they tell
…..no time except their own.
Here in the land of Oz where
…..total extinction is likely,
…..the maples offer no defense
…..but nonchalant irrelevance.

The last six lines of “Vengeance,” concerning Lady Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron, are iambic and use rhyme. The rhymes—pair/hair—are so distant from each other that they’d be lost in a poem containing other rhymes. Here, though, they offer demure closure against the bluntness of the penultimate word.

…………………………………….Repeated
…..spats defined them as a pair.
After they spat their last,
…..she mailed what she believed
…..was all he understood of love—
…..two snippets of her pubic hair.

And finally, here’s a single line from “Night in the Eye of the Sun,” where meter, insistent consonance, and striking imagery combine to become greater than the sum of their parts. This is just straight-up gorgeous.

………………….The buttered crust
of our baguette tastes almost
like the eucharist.

Free verse, yes—with a twist.

The collection is organized into an introductory poem and five sections: “To be Reminded,” “To Lie in Wait,” “To Aim in Silence,” “To Run Out of Destinations,” and “Against Uncertainty” (which contains a single poem). Structuring and organizing a collection of poems can be difficult. A current publishing trend encourages poets to organize their poems in some way that implies a structural transparency—to act as if their collection has an inherent logical order even though it may not. Most collections, after all, are built of poems written as they come, in no thematic order, over time. Hazo’s divisions, studied closely, make sense—but the shape of a collection is less important than the individual poems within it. A poem is a universe; we’re greedy if we demand that it also fit meaningfully into a superimposed order.

The introductory poem deftly prepares us for what’s to come.

Once

If once means once, once twice
…..is impossible.
……………………………..Once is quick
…..as a struck match.
………………………………….But once
…..can be a song that keeps
…..singing after it’s sung.
Or a poem that’s once and always
…..at the same time.
………………………………….To be complete
…..it has to end, but once
…..it’s over, it begins again.

In fifty-two words—five short sentences—Hazo creates a portal into the collection. “Once” is only once—or a repetition, or endless. Each of his contradictory examples feels familiar and true—how do humans not founder under all this paradox? Note the simple language, the short, almost staccato sentences, the hidden, satisfying off-rhyme at the poem’s close (end/again), the sharp onomatopoeia of “quick / as a struck match.” This is thoughtful, controlled verse.

The title poem is the first poem in the “To be Reminded” section. A note about Paris: it has for many decades been a favorite Hazo topic. Two of his collections from forty years ago are An America Made in Paris (Byblos Press, 1978) and To Paris (New Directions, 1981).

The Next Time We Saw Paris

“The next time was the last time.”

One morning we saw de Gaulle
…..himself in uniform chauffeured
…..alone in an open Peugeot.
He seemed to dare assassination
…..as he did near Notre-Dame
…..during the Liberation parade.
On house fronts and doors we noticed
…..small bronze plaques with names
…..followed by Victime de Nazis.
We’d read reports that Enfants
…..des Boches reached 100,000
…..during the Occupation.
…………………………………………..“Horizontal
…..Collaborators” were shorn bald,
…..spat upon and marched naked
…..through the streets.
…………………………………………De Gaulle
…..pronounced all executed traitors
…..justly punished.
…………………………………..We focused
…..on Paris of the postcards: Sacré-
…..Coeur and the Eiffel Tower.
The Folies-Bergère booked sellouts.
The Bateau Mouches was packed.
Lounging by the Seine, a fisherman
…..propped his rod against
…..a bench and smoked a Gitanes
…..as if catching a fish meant
…..little or nothing at all.

Set sometime between 1944 and 1970, when Charles de Gaulle died, the poem opens with de Gaulle’s casualness regarding his own well-being. He and the poem’s speaker are in a Paris filled with signs and reminders of the various horrors of World War II. The latter part of the poem switches unexpectedly into a lighter mode. Paris life returns to normal, and a glimpsed fisherman seems as insouciant about life as de Gaulle was at the beginning of the poem. The reader has been brought full circle. World War II began fading in the minds of the French, and the world, the moment it ended—yet the miscellaneous details that Hazo recalls will stay vibrant for him forever. “To be Reminded” may be a blessing or a curse, and there’s no way of telling in advance.

Who is the “We” of the title? In the literal sense, “we” seems to be Hazo and his beloved wife, Mary Anne, who died in 2016. Many of the collection’s poems are to or about her. In another sense, though, we are all that “we,” trying to get on with our lives in spite of time’s unpredictability.

The collection’s final poem—the only poem in the section titled “Against Uncertainty”—offers what may be the only possible survival technique.

The Odds

We want what’s intimate to last
…..as surely as we want the life
…..of touch, taste, sight, scent and sound
…..to last forever.
………………………………….“Tomorrow
…..I’ll be here no longer,” Nostradamus
…..whispered when he died.
Fontenelle near death described
…..his fear “…as nothing more
…..than trying to go on living.”
Dying of fever, Hopkins
…..repeated, “I am so happy.”
Reactions differ.
……………………………..Beliefs
belie believers.
………………………………….All
…..that lasts are chosen loves
…..and what we hope is hope
…..to wage against uncertainty.

In this tiny gathering of famous last words, Hazo squares off with death—which is either time’s victory or its defeat. He wants to believe the latter, but the poem captures a moment of doubt. Thus, he writes about “chosen loves” and “what we hope is hope”—because what isn’t hope is despair or delusion. Despite all of his experience with life and time, and even in his uncertainty, Hazo still chooses love and hope. At the very least, he hopes that it’s hope he’s feeling, which is akin to praying, “I believe—help my unbelief.” Hazo is still standing, and he’s onto time’s tricks.

Jane Greer

Jane Greer

Jane Greer edited Plains Poetry Journal (1981-1993), an advance guard of the New Formalism movement. Her new book of poems is Love like a Conflagration (Lambing Press).
Jane Greer

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Author: Jane Greer

Jane Greer edited Plains Poetry Journal (1981-1993), an advance guard of the New Formalism movement. Her new book of poems is Love like a Conflagration (Lambing Press).