Piece by Piece: Selected Prose
by Rachel Hadas
(Paul Dry Books, Inc., 2021, 221 pages, $19.95 paperback)
Love and Dread: Poems
by Rachel Hadas
(Measure Press, 2021, 53 pages, $25 hardcover)
There was not a snowball’s chance in Hell that Rachel Hadas would grow up to be an accountant.
If your aim were to create a renowned poet, teacher, essayist, and translator, you could do no better than to schedule her birth in the rich literary stew of 1948 New York City to Moses and Elizabeth Hadas. Moses, an eminent Columbia University professor of Classics and widely published (and still widely read) translator, and Elizabeth, a long-time teacher of Latin, surrounded the child Rachel with books of every sort and frequent conversations about things linguistic.
In the “Classics” essay in Piece by Piece, a grown-up Hadas ponders her upbringing after pouring the remains of her cup of coffee onto very dry ground:
For a little while the liquid simply lay there in a small convex puddle before seeming to gather its forces and sink into the baked earth. The ground was far too dry to be immediately absorbent; earth, like a sponge, needs to be moist before it can soak up what it needs.
A mind is like that, too. Books and attention, books as attention, conversation, books as conversation—endless attention and attentiveness are required. I and the children I knew growing up, children whose parents were readers and writers, were not always ecstatically happy by any means, but it seems to me that we were sufficiently moistened to soak up as much as we could, swelling to make room for each successive drop.
Hadas flourished in this medium of learning and language, winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ingram Merrill Foundation grants, the O. B. Hardison Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Since 1981, she has taught English at Rutgers University-Newark, and since 2006 she has been the Board of Governors Professor of English there.
These two new books, Piece by Piece (selected prose) and Love and Dread (poetry), may be among Hadas’ best.
The depth, breadth, and height of scholarship in Piece by Piece is evident throughout, yet the writing is graceful and clear. Hadas writes to communicate, not to show off. (Her fourth gift—with poetry, prose, and translation—is teaching.) The author of three dozen books, she is here at the top of her prose game. These diverse essays form a universe of scholarship and opinion, preference and experience, humor and grief.
The book title Piece by Piece is from a Hadas poem of the same name, placed between her foreword and the first section of essays. The poem “Piece by Piece” is a glimpse of the general theme of the book: love squaring off against time and loss.
Piece by Piece
All you grasp will be thrown away. All you hoard will be utterly lost. –Tao Te Ching, 44, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin
I’ve practiced the poetics of space, but there’s a sequel: empty spaces have a resounding poetry. I’m standing, skimming through the B’s. On the shelf near Bachelard, Keith Basso: Wisdom Sits in Places. Sits in empty places. While it’s easy, study the hard. We’ve heard about the art of losing; passing on is also choosing. Things are in motion, fast or slow. Clouds keep sailing through the sky. Holding on makes nothing stay. Give things permission to go. Touch with gentleness, release, and rooted objects will break loose, a landslide that gathers speed and leaves a brightness in its wake, a lacy layer of memories like foam lines scribbled on a beach. This was Vermont. And here was Greece. For the time left, what do I need? What to take? What not to take? Little by little, page by page, let me give myself away. Each addition to one’s age asks for subtraction. It is time to be packing. Travel light. What is the final appetite? What is there I will not let go?
This poem originally had a final line which Hadas deleted before it was first published in Gettysburg Review. In her foreword, she says:
I want to reinstate that deleted final line here. The poem as published ends with that question, but originally its final line answered the question: ‘You, my beloved. I need you.’ You is my dear husband Shalom Gorewitz, who since 2013 has cherished me in ways I had never imagined. In the safety and joy and attention of the life we share, I’ve been able to look back, to reflect, and to begin to let go. But a person one loves is a keeper.
As the poem promises, the essays and reviews that follow examine what Hadas values: memories, loved ones, the intellectual life, her work of teaching and writing. The book is generally elegiac but never despairing. Readers will find reviews and a variety of other pieces “poised between the cloudy genres of essay and mini-memoir.” Memoir is a mist winding through many of the essays—and Hadas is a delightful memoirist. There’s also a kind of love letter to J. D. Salinger, short discourses on this word or that, and a thoughtful interview of Hadas by Jessica Greenbaum. Some pieces were occasioned by a locale, or an overheard conversation.
The literary line between Hadas’ reviews and her other essays is razor-fine. Even many of the non-review essays refer to a book or two, or more. Almost every piece, review or not, introduces us to writers and ideas that sometimes stretch back millennia. In each of these thirty pieces, Hadas takes us on the scenic and historic route to our destination, and we’re grateful for the trip.
She is the reviewer every writer hopes for and needs. She reads and ponders and re-reads before laying out for us a work’s greatest strengths and, gently, its possible shortcomings. Many of these reviews address multiple works and authors that are related in some way. For example, she loves Greece, once lived there, and has translated ancient Greek works. “Takes on Arcadia” reviews three books on Greece, by Stephen Minta, David Solway, and Patricia Storace. All three books were published in the 1990s, more than twenty years before Hadas reviewed them. She writes: “They’re not obsolete, far from it: rather, one can think of them as having joined the swelling chorus of voices talking about what is too simple to call a place and too abstract to call an idea. Each of these canny and elegantly written books adds a layer to the endlessly palimpsestic text that is Greece.”
Hadas’ first husband (of more than thirty years), composer George Edwards (1943-2011), was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of sixty-one and died seven years later. (Hadas’ Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry documents those years.) In “What Good Will This Knowledge Do You? Four Poets on Illness,” she reviews books by Charles Bardes, Cameron Conaway, Christine Stewart-Nuñez, and Jennifer Franklin.
[T]hese slender books have, of course, entered the clamorous world of American poetry. Every day, especially during National Poetry Month, one encounters self-congratulatory statements about the diversity and dynamism of American poetry, its generosity and inclusiveness. But if race or gender or class are no longer barriers to poetic utterance, being old or ill or disabled may be the next hurdles. . . . Still, there’s an inherent isolation in the patient’s or caregiver’s experience, a loneliness that inflects all these books and relegates them to a quiet but crucial corner of the loud arena.
“Subterranean Forces,” one of the longer reviews, is a deep dive into seven books of poetry, published between 2007 and 2018, by four poets of color: Edward Baugh, Erica Dawson, Ishion Hutchinson, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips. In the first line, Hadas gets down to business:
In these jittery times, writing about literature is an enterprise pocked with pitfalls. Translate a text from a language spoken by relatively few people into one of the global tongues and you can be accused of colonializing, appropriating, privileging, and all the rest of the moralistic litany of blame. Closer to home, as I, an aging white woman, sit down to write about four wonderful poets of color three of whom are young enough to be my children, it would be terribly easy for me to feel paralyzed between bad choices. Should the skin color . . . make a difference? If not, then why mention it? Why group these very different poets, why herd them into this particular pen, at all? Yet ignore the fact of race and you may be called complicit in the silence. Ignoring race is a privilege of white people. No wonder the late and much missed [American poet] Tony Hoagland referred, in a recent essay, to “the double or triple bind of power, apology, and hazard that hamstrings white writers when they attempt to deal with race.” Confronted by this complicated maze, it’s easy to choose silence as the graceful way out. And yet how silent is that silence, really? It’s troubled, murky, roiling with history. Hoagland again: “In matters of race, subterranean forces always seem to be actively coexistent with those explicable by rationality.”
A little later, Hadas says: “The dilemma, the dichotomy, the unforgiving choice, the swerve in a career—they’re everywhere you look.” And: “It’s a matter of vision. Not just how but what: what do you see, what do you say? What do you put in or leave out? What can you bear to include or to ignore?” Shades of the title poem.
Hadas quoting Hoagland again (who is quoting Reginald Shepherd, a gay African-American poet):
Identity poetics is boring, giving back the already known, in an endless and endlessly self-righteous confirmation of things as they already are . . . the greatest literature has always engaged in the generation of new realities, not the reiteration of the same old given reality.
After thus setting the perilous stage for her reviews of these books, Hadas says this before giving each of the books her full attention:
The more I think about these poets’ work, the more I see how elegantly, in their very different ways, each of them has, from the beginnings of their respective careers, found ways of negotiating the racial labyrinth—has, in a sense, managed to have their cake and eat it too: to speak the truth without sacrificing elegance and wit.
There is only one way in which Piece by Piece hits a wrong note. The book is about core human emotions, not the ephemera of politics, yet Hadas disparages a living American president in several places with what amount to snide asides. The remarks, cropping up awkwardly, are almost intimate, as if between close friends who understand the code and agree with the disparagement. These few cheap shots—so different from Hadas’ usual considered prose—politicize and diminish the writing. In this book examining what—in memory, in life, in writing—is best to leave in and leave out, Hadas should have left out the snark.
Rachel Hadas is often associated with the New Formalism school of poetry. The definition of “New Formalist” was vague fifty years ago and is more vague now. Today, poets who generally or regularly use meter or rhyme in some way are thought of as formalists. Hadas is adept at using rhyme and meter in modern, subtle ways. She says, in the interview with Jessica Greenbaum included in Piece by Piece, “I don’t seem to think very hard about my best work; when it’s going well, it goes pretty fast, even if fast means half a dozen drafts or more. I don’t hunt for material or obsess about form.”
Elsewhere in the interview, she says:
I was drawn to the way poetry connects the outer and the inner world, how it’s almost always about feelings but rarely only about feelings; how excellent poems can be, and often are, very short; how poetry almost begs to be, is engineered to be, memorized. The sound of the words, the patterns they make! The how more than the what.
(Along these lines: Hadas says in “An Ecstasy of Space,” a review of poetry by Jane Cooper and Rosmarie Waldrop: “I’ve never been comfortable with the term ‘prose poem,’ since samples of the genre often seem to combine the worst features of both parents.”)
In the same interview:
[P]ossibly the clarity or candor or transparency also derive from a greater verbal economy. This principle of economy should work for an entire book as well as the individual poem. Frost said somewhere, ‘I’d like to lodge a few poems where they’re hard to get rid of.’ In very few collections, finally, does every poem feel necessary, crucial; but that kind of urgency is nevertheless what one should go for. My earlier books often contain too many poems that are too long. One tries to learn.”
One does indeed. Love and Dread is a strong, lean collection of thirty-six poems. Reviewing it in tandem with Piece by Piece made obvious the relationship between the two books. So much in the essays both anticipates and answers the poems. In particular, Hadas’ thoughts on poetry—hers and others’—sprinkled throughout Piece by Piece are realized in the poems of Love and Dread. The essays were written in the twenty-five years between 1994 and 2019; we don’t know when the poems were written. But in both books—in both forms—Hadas opens up Hadas, and each essay and poem is quintessential Hadas. At seventy-three, her way of seeing the world is marrow-deep.
Beginning with the book’s title, there is nothing subtle or vague about the theme. The word “dread” signals that Hadas is writing not about the thing—death, loss—but about fear of the thing. In addition, she seems to dread her own disappearance less than she dreads—to the point of grieving before the fact—the disappearance of people she loves. Here’s the title poem:
Love and Dread
A desiccated daffodil. A pigeon cooing on the sill. The old cat lives on love and water. Your mother’s balanced by your daughter: one faces death, one will give birth. The fulcrum is our life on earth, beginning, ending in a bed. We have to marry love and dread. Dark clouds are roiling in the sky. The daily drumbeat of the lie, steady—no, crescendoing. This premature deceptive spring forsythia’s in bloom already. The challenge: balance. Keep it steady, now sniffing daffodils’ aroma, now googling a rare sarcoma. The ghost cat’s weightless on my lap. My mother’s ghost floats through my nap, as, dearest heart, we lie in bed. Oh, we must marry love and dread; must shield our senses from the glare and clamor of chaos everywhere. Life bestows gifts past expectation. It’s time to plan a celebration: dance at the wedding, drink and sing, certain that summer follows spring, that new life blossoms from the past. The baby is the youngest guest. But just how long can we depend on a recurrence without end? Everything changes, even change. The tapestry of seasons strange- ly stirs in an uneasy wind that teases dreamlike through the mind. I reach for you across the bed. Oh, how to marry love and dread?
In her excellent foreword to this book, A. E. Stallings says, “And form follows function: while there are free verse, quatrains, and blank verse poems in the mix, even a sonnet and a cento, I think the indicative mood of this volume is the couplet, the wedding of opposites, as if translated from a language where ‘love’ and ‘dread’ do in fact rhyme.”
Few poetic effects are more satisfying to the ear than perfect, surprising couplets—if they’re perfect and surprising—and this poem satisfies. The tetrameter is trustworthy. The poem is self-propelled yet never metronomic. And the rhymes surprise: water/daughter (not so rare a rhyme, because there are only a few good additional rhyming words, but here the usage is organic rather than forced); aroma/sarcoma; and three different instances of bed/dread, each carrying a different emotional burden.
Speaking of bed: Stallings also notes, “Many poems in this volume unfold in bedrooms or at the doorway to bridal chambers, the bed the stage for birth, love, and death, and for the dream-world of napping and waking in between.” Love and Dread is dedicated to Hadas’ husband, Shalom Gorewitz, whom we also meet in the foreword to Piece by Piece. Her love poetry is generous with details of the heart but not of the body. She watches her lover in bed; she reaches for him across the bed; but she supplies no grainy close-ups of their transaction. It’s tempting to say her love poems are refined, and they are—but in the sense of intentionally holding back something huge and dangerous, keeping it under control. The entire mysterious complexity of human love is what she’s after and what she’s disclosing to us. Tectonic shifts of the soul tend toward the ineffable; who does what to whom is inconsequential. Hadas wisely draws us to the bed but not into it.
There are splashes of humor here, or good humor, or at least irony: sniffing and googling lighten up aroma and sarcoma, and the irritating enjambment of strange-/ly (irritating on the page and on principle but not to the ear) somehow becomes the action it describes. Surely Hadas’ first instinct was to leave strangely in one piece, as an off-rhyme with change! Instead, she did the even more “uneasy” thing, and it works.
“Marble Cake,” my favorite of all the poems in this collection, is small, rich, and dense.
Swirled with a flickeringly thin old knife into golden batter, the streaks and whorls curlicue to a submerged design.
Fear: less the other side of bliss’s coin than thin lines hidden deep within the sweet mixture, a secret pattern coded in dark and light.
We bake the cake and breathe its fragrance in when it is done and cut it, and lay bare the black and white and sit down to eat.
Here’s that “verbal economy”: every word is necessary. The lines have three, four, or five stresses, and rhymes and off-rhymes—design, coin, pattern, done; batter, pattern; sweet, light, white, eat—swirl through the poem. Pain swirls into pleasure, pleasure opens to receive pain, and the couple (“we”) accepts it all, rejoices, and partakes.
In “B and D,” the reader sees the world from a godlike perspective—that is, if God watched over us on an array of video screens like a security guard.
B and D
Patients check into the hospital. The baby edges down the birth canal. Neighbors assemble at the funeral. B and D cross each other in the hall.
The baby in her blanket snuffles, stretches, gives a little mew. On shaky legs, the ancient cat is trending stiffly toward her favorite chair.
Strange winter with no snow. January morning, damp and dark: B and D are walking in the park. Goodbye. Hello.
They cross each other’s paths and turn to go, but then, acceding to the gentle weather, shrug and stroll a little way together. The sky is neutral. Change is in the air.
The cat opens one eye. She hasn’t eaten in a week but laps at offered water still, and purrs. Wait, says her bony body. Stroke me. Wait.
The baby opens two eyes and meets her mother’s: double gaze. Hold me, nurse me, memorize me, see winter turn to spring and watch me grow.
On their rounds through the city, B and D have other errands now, chosen rooms they silently enter without a key.
In this poem, the seven or eight batches of scattered rhymes and off-rhymes are shadows moving across a wall. The lines and sentences are short, the language plain, the structure artful. Its very artfulness is what shocks, as in The Godfather’s baptism scene: ritual and tenderness braided with chaos and evil. Real life. Love and death. Love and dread.
Finally, here are excerpts from the beginning and end of “Shouldering”:
The dream bird father sitting on my shoulder is singing in my ear: Now that you’re older than I was when I left the rocky road, it is your turn to shoulder the load, answer questions students need to ask. You are an elder now. You wear the mask of wisdom. So you tell them ……………………………………………Tell them what? . . . The dream bird looks at me and hops away. Always uphill…..the steep road……poetry Scattered syllables still in my ear when I sit up and the red world is here.
Dreams, and poems about dreams—even poems about fictional dreams—are often dull: intensely interior, wide open to interpretation, and unhinged. “Shouldering” overcomes these handicaps. Its pall of fearful uncertainty, of reluctance or unfitness to take on an important responsibility, feels uncomfortably familiar.
And what is the “red world” to which the dreamer wakes? It is simply the world, teeming with love and dread. We fall in love with it piece by piece, and it leaves us, piece by piece, person by person. And still we go on, because the world is that good.
Rachel Hadas has earned her way into the very top tier of writers living today. Her scholarship is unsurpassed. Her prose is elegant, insightful, and clear. Her poetry is musical, full of craft and depth. Buy these books if you haven’t already.