|For the Centurys End: Poems 1990-1999. John Haines. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2001.
The solar clockhand stopped,
confusion and fury on the street
- so much idle paper
shredded and tossed aside.
Upon reading these lines in the first poem of John Haines most recent poetry collection, one cannot help but give a startled glance at the title: "Poem for the End of the Century." This is not, technically, a "September 11th poem" yet it, like so many other poems in the book, seems prescient of the beginning of the new century. Haines unflinching vision is not comforting; an initial reading of the poems reveals little warmthyet the poems feel necessary, essential to our understanding of the world were shaping for ourselves and our children.
Haines looks dispassionately at money and politics, often using machines as metaphors for the cool surface of life that so often distracts us from a more rewarding inner life. In "NEAR Travels Far to Find Eros," he describes the "year spent probing the stellar dust" as "One more skilled adventurewhatever/ it is that fuels the stalled machine/ and sends the pilot on his starry quest;// whatever it is they hope to find/ out therean emptiness, a stillborn/ terror, but it is not love."
Haines maintains a stance of cool distance as he takes us on a brief tour of history, through a 12-section poem, "The House of Wax," with wry observations about such people as Minuit, "with his tins and furs buying Manhattan," about "Ike, Kennedy and Ford/golfers and temporizers;" and about "Another room,/ with smaller people/ and thinner walls" peopled by storybook characters in a "mad, mad romp/ of children, of rabbits/ and dwarfs, who keep/ their strange hilarity/ in so much horror."
It can be difficult to maintain such a cool gaze, as a writer, or as a reader, and I found myself consciously seeking some warmth within the poems. I found it in images of snow and wind. This was initally surprising, but upon reflection, it makes perfect sense; the heart of Haines work has always been in the far north, where snow and wind drive people toward connections born of necessity, then forged in friendship.
In "Snow" Haines remembers being "a student, solitary, wandering/ the Sunday silence of Wall Street,// a snowstorm that buried the city." The image recalls the image of the "idle paper/ shredded and tossed aside" but the snow is warmer than the paper.
In "Another Country" he writes, "And one spring day the sun/came back, and a sudden weight/slipped from the snow-roof." But we must read carefully: the weight of the snow has also been an insulating warmth; the sudden weight slipping off the roof can pose a danger.
The book ends with "the fleeting image of a vacant house,/ a dust of snow on the steps." The house, we are told, contains "both distance and welcome, stillness/ and departure."
We live in difficult times, Haines reminds us; we can face the evidence of this and still choose to turn from it to each other for whatever comfort our companionship can offer. It will be a companionship of "separate lives" as he describes in a poem remembering Hilda Morley, where after Morley "limp[s] on an injured foot" to the waterfront on a walk with Haines, the two sit "by the fireside at supper," and "in the quiet of that place we liked" form a bond of brief friendship through their willingness to speak gently of harsh realities and listen to each other with open hearts.
This is the nature of the connection John Haines invites us to make through a thoughtful reading of his poems For the Centurys End. It is a connection worth making.
- Helen Frost