Book Review of The Ache of Appetite by Rachel Hadas

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Rachel Hadas at the bookstore & Amazon order information The Ache of Appetite by Rachel Hadas (Copper Beech Press, 2010)
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Book Review —

Rachel Hadas: The Ache of Appetite

(Copper Beech Press, 2010)
ISBN 978-0-914278-84-9, $12.00 


Since Halfway Down the Hall: New and Selected Poems (1998) recapitulated her earliest books, Rachel Hadas has produced Indelible (2001), Laws (2003), and The River of Forgetfulness (2006). Fortunately for latecomers to her work, one need not have followed Hadas’s prolific poetic career since 1975 to enjoy her eleventh full-length poetry collection, The Ache of Appetite (2010). Jumping into her work at this point is comparable to catching an Emmy-winning episode of a television show: the segment in question remains an outstanding piece of drama, even if you haven’t watched the series before and don’t immediately recognize recurring themes and characters. Still, longtime fans will obviously have a richer and more resonant experience of the material, and first-time audiences will probably be impressed enough by this latest installment to go back a season or two.
     I’ll begin this review of The Ache of Appetite with a close reading of “Leaning In” (pp. 48-49)—first taking the poem at face value, and then supplying cross-references to Hadas’s other work. (Able Muse sought and received the poet’s permission to reprint her poem here in its entirety.) I’ll conclude with a brief overview of the rest of the book.

* * *

The nine-stanza poem begins:

      Students all too commonly misconstrue the
      poem in which Sappho calls that man equal
      to a god who, opposite you, leans in and
                     whispers, etcetera,

      tending to assume it’s about two people:
      speaker/loved one? Beloved and man near her,
      bending close to her, whom the poet hears as,
                     heads close together,

      they laugh softly? Wait: that makes three. Sweat’s pouring
      down some body: his? hers? whose? At which point I
      throw my hands up, figurative or literal,
                     and the chalk shatters.

With mischievous irony, Hadas uses Sapphic stanzas and a barrage of difficult-to-parse modifying clauses to walk us through the all too commonly misconstrue[d] Sappho Fragment 31 (Phaínetaí moi). The first stanza’s offhand etcetera, with its flattering assumption that we are well-read enough to require no further plot summary, places us on a higher plane than Hadas’s error-prone undergraduates. With this casual gesture, the narrator invites us to share her professorial vantage point. Consequently, when the ensuing blizzard of question marks places us in the classroom of bewildered students, we identify more strongly with her predicament (clarifying this difficult material) than with theirs (comprehending it). The chalk-shattering flamboyance of her exasperation encourages us to chuckle sympathetically at the professor’s uncharacteristic impotence.
     Expecting things to continue in a similarly humorous vein, we are primed to notice comedic incongruity. However, over the next few stanzas, the most obvious incongruity is between the passionate exclamations that Hadas attributes to Sappho’s narrator (The luck of him! The nerve of him! are not in the Greek text) and the curious disengagement of Hadas’s own narrator:

      I’d been going to diagram the poem:
      speaker; loved one; man sitting near the loved one—
      the luck of him! The nerve of him! Almost equal,
                     if one dare say this

      (phrase Catullus added in his rendition:
      si fas est): he almost surpasses gods who
      sits across from you, who drinks in, etcetera.
                     So: a triangle

      that I could have sketched on a blackboard. Never

By now it is clear that the professor hadn’t been kidding around when she threw up her hands (literal or figurative) in abject surrender: I’d been going to diagram . . . I could have sketched . . . Never mind. She really has given up. Even the etcetera seems more despondent this time. By truncating an incomplete syntactical unit—as if providing a direct object for who drinks in isn’t worth the bother—it seems the tonal equivalent of a weary yada yada yada. She doesn’t care much about accuracy, either: who drinks in isn’t actually in the Greek. The haphazard enjambment of Never/ mind also telegraphs apathy. The professor’s mood begins to look more symptomatic of depression than of amused self-deprecation.
     This hunch is supported by the two-sentence portrait of futility after the Never/ mind. Backtracking a bit for continuity:

                     So: a triangle

      that I could have sketched on a blackboard. Never
      mind. Hands, bodies seeking each other? Cell phones,
      Blackberries, incessant barrage of messages. . .

In this poem, questions signal hopeless perplexity. Significantly, a question precedes the students’ infinite (by virtue of ellipsis) arsenal of telecommunication devices. The question/catalog combination implies that it would be pointless to expect these Twitter-pated young people to understand why body language might be anyone’s sole means of expressing desire. (Sappho’s speechlessness and its implied discretion might seem to them equally antiquated.)
     To the list of concepts incomprehensible to her young students, the late-middle-aged narrator now adds the terms beloved, loved one, and even Love itself—this last item also earning the befuddled question mark we’ve seen six times before in the poem:

                     And that beloved:

      now my glossary has been infiltrated
      by the use of “loved one” in life’s new context
      to denote a man who has oh-so-slowly
                     turned to a problem

      soluble finally by what some call “placement”
      (one Canadian doctor said “disposition”).
      Love? Let lyrics rich with their clustering pronouns
                     do the embracing.

      But there is no doubt that I’m now familiar
      with the template. Three in a room: first, doctor;
      husband, next; and finally me, caregiver
                     leaning in, listening.

The erudite professor who once could have sketched her way out of Sappho’s convoluted language is no longer in command of things, linguistically or otherwise: now my glossary has been infiltrated, she says, in a close echo of Sappho’s own glôssa éage (my tongue has been broken) in Fragment 31. Hadas’s loss of autonomy over her vocabulary corresponds to her possible loss of autonomy as caregiver for her husband; apparently, more than one specialist advises that his medical situation can no longer be managed on an outpatient basis. The narrator has already used the phrase loved one three times in this poem, yet now she must handle it with the distancing prongs of quotation marks. This term, traditionally the special province of poets like Sappho and Hadas, becomes so dehumanized in life’s new context that it represents less a man than a problem. Such relentlessly euphemistic hospital lingo shifts words and meanings to the point that they can no longer be agreed-upon: what some call one thing, one Canadian doctor said another. If “placement” and “disposition” now denote the separation of lovers due to institutionalization, what is now meant by Love? Clearly it can no longer associated with the embracing celebrated in lyrics like Sappho’s. Problematic clustering pronouns are to be preserved only in poetic relics from another time.
     And yet Sappho’s lyric remains painfully, personally relevant to the narrator’s situation, as shown in that devastating final stanza. Over the course of my young daughter’s chronic medical condition, I have seen more than one medical specialist comport himself as if he is almost equal to, nay, almost surpasses[,] gods; so I particularly appreciate that aspect of the doctor’s role as the envied and resented man sitting near the loved one. Naturally, the narrator’s husband fills the role of Sappho’s unattainable beloved, in whose presence she has lost the power of speech. (Previous poems in The Ache of Appetite tell us that the husband’s dementia has begun to prevent the poet from communicating with him. In retrospect, the Never/ mind line break that places mind next to Hands, bodies seeking each other no longer appears so haphazard.) And of course the narrator herself assumes Sappho’s role as third wheel—privy to the intimacies of the doctor-patient relationship, yet unable to reclaim her own relationship with the beloved. Recasting Fragment 31’s triangle in this way is nothing short of genius.
     According to Hadas’s 2007 compilation of essays, Classics, another triangle has had a broader influence on her body of work. In a parenthetical remark explaining why students do not always appear in her many poems about teaching, Hadas notes on page 151: It is terribly difficult to include all points of the triangle teacher/student/text in one poem. “Leaning In” does manage to pull off this hat trick. The classroom-set beginning of the poem is thus as triangular as its hospital-set ending, if not aligned quite so neatly with Sappho’s speaker; loved one; man sitting near the loved one. Then again, maybe it is! Perhaps the narrator envies the luck and the nerve of the students to whom, like gods, mortality is not a concern; who, lacking firsthand experience of unspeakable anguish, are completely oblivious to the narrator’s; and who thus cannot fully appreciate the beloved text that now leaves her at a loss for words (and chalk).
     Classics also provides evidence that Sappho’s Phaínetaí moi and Catullus’s Latin version of it (ille mi par esse deo videtur) have long occupied a special place in Hadas’s heart. In her 18-page review of two translations (Barbara Hughes Fowler’s 1992 Archaic Greek Poetry: An Anthology and Diane J. Raynor’s 1991 Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece), Hadas briefly mentions Catullus’s version before spending pages 137-139 contrasting these two new renditions of Sappho Fragment 31 with Richard Lattimore’s. Hadas also invokes Catullus 51 in her March 2010 New Criterion review (available online) of Aaron Poochigian’s 2009 Sappho translation, Stung With Love: Poems and Fragments.
     Note that in “Leaning In”, the phrase Catullus added in his rendition follows soon after Hadas’s own additions—the luck of him! The nerve of him! Verbal irreverence toward the immortals is the topic of Catullus’s contribution. It is therefore ironic that his daring precedent seems to have encouraged Hadas’s own semi-sacrilegious impulse to put a few words in the immortal Sappho’s mouth. (I’m probably making too much of this—Hadas’s poem isn’t a translation, after all—but I find it amusing because my own writings, including the previous sentence, are littered with attributions of mood and motive that are far, far more presumptuous.)
     For additional insights into “Leaning In”, one should start with the eleven poems preceding it and the fourteen poems following it in The Ache of Appetite. These form Part II of the book, devoted to the husband’s dementia and the difficult choices it forces upon his wife. Three snippets: First, the narrator of “Doors” (pp. 35-36), recently/ having entered illness’s domain/ vicariously, on my husband’s arm, reaches the inner sanctum,/ seat of the doctor on his pallid throne. This image prepares us for his more oblique comparison with gods in “Leaning In”. Second, “Dreams of Doctors” (pp. 44-45) presents a slightly different way to triangulate within a hospital room: Doctor, woman, icon in between. (The icon is a religious item in one ancient Greek housewife’s dream, then an artistic item in another’s, but one might easily imagine it corresponding to an MRI in a modern setting.) “Strong Medicine” (pp. 46-47) immediately precedes “Looking In”, and contains the wonderful lines, Illness is a new language,/ but I’ve long been bilingual,// translating for my husband/ and back to him in turn,/ speaking the world.
     Of Hadas’s innumerable past poems on texts and teaching, two provide particularly interesting counterpoints to “Leaning In”. Note Catullus’s cameo appearance in this excerpt of a free verse piece spanning pages 6-14 of Laws (2004), entitled “Pronoun Variations”:

      Lyric poetry positively bristles with [pronouns].
      Sappho’s “He seems to me like a god who sits across from you”
                     introduces a triangle right away, though students have a
                     hard time envisioning all three of these people in one
                     room, stanza, etc.
      Are pronouns erotic?
      To Sappho, you bet: blushing and crumpling as they do in the
                     shuddering flame of the nouns they stand in for and the
                     tremulous verbs igniting those nouns behind the screen.

      Phainetai moi keinos isos theoisin
      You and I and lucky s/he beside you
      Qui sedens adversus identidem te
      [. . .]
      And yet in bed do lovers say you and I?
      Their bodies do. Their eyes do.
      My eyes. My body. I love you.

The banishment of clustering pronouns from anywhere but lyrics near the end of “Leaning In” also reminds me of the discussion of mortality near the end of “Pronoun Variations”: And at the end I believe we let go of our pronouns[. . .]
     The second teaching poem I’ll single out is “Conklin 455, 3:55 PM, Wednesday, March 3, 2004”, on page 106 of The River of Forgetfulness (2006). In “Conklin”, the narrator makes her way toward the class she must teach twelve hours after her brother’s death. She directly invokes you poems we read my brother in those last/ phone calls, to

      help me today, please. Come with me to class.
      Up two flights to Conklin Hall, fourth floor.
      Pause; door is closed. Regroup. It’s five to four.
      Remember who is waiting for me there.

The professor’s apostrophic address then shifts toward the students whom she is about to face in the classroom:

      I offer you no more than what I’ve had

      lavished on me. Love what you give away:
      aha! You get to keep it till you die.
      The keeping is synonymous with giving.
      My brother gave as long as he was living,

      and longer, after, more.
      I open the door.

At least the grief-stricken “Conklin” narrator has a chance to Regroup in private before opening the classroom door; she draws strength from both the texts themselves and the fact that her brother, also a professor, shared her commitment to this vocation. In contrast, the mid-lecture emotional crisis of “Leaning In” takes the narrator by surprise, and although the complicated text she’s teaching does provide her some means of making sense of her private life, its complexity also shatters her self-confidence as a teacher. When juxtaposed with “Conklin”, the nearly-comfortless “Leaning In” classroom scenario seems all the more heartrending.

* * *

Many poems in The Ache of Appetite pick up on ideas the poet has explored before—sometimes repeatedly. “Recognition” (p. 15) begins, To see with fresh perspective, rent a room./ Pissarro did, in Paris, in old age,/ painting his city from successive views. For decades now, Hadas has been painting successive views of New York City and her respites from it; of Greek landscapes and literature; of her parents’ deaths; of her son’s growth; of choices and the lack thereof; and of the relationship between the Muses and their mother, Memory—among other pet themes.
     Readers in the know can thus spot Charon’s fingerprints on the rudder of the innocent-seeming ferry of “Recognition”, the pontoon of “River Boat” (p. 20), and the sailboat of the villanelle “The Boat” (p. 63), having previously encountered him in so many other Hadas poems—most recently, to point out the obvious, in The River of Forgetfulness. “Platelets” (pp. 52-53), a poem in which the narrator reads Kafka and Keats while giving blood, evokes “Reading The Princess While Giving Blood While Reading The Princess” (Laws). The lines As a little girl, I begged, I shook/ My sister’s sleeve: Please play with me! from the villanelle “The Family Room” (p. 11) echo the lines nor does my aging little-sister whine/ Play with me! get prettier over time from “The Crust House” (Indelible); the poem also reminds one more generally of “Sisters” (Indelible), “Field Notes on Younger Siblings” (Laws), and “Lightbulbs and Soap” (The River of Forgetfulness). The villanelle “Skin” (p.54) has a pedigree that includes “Fleshly Answers” (Halfway Down the Hall) and “Super Nivem” (1975’s Starting From Troy, reprinted in Halfway Down the Hall), along with “The Bruise” and “Blemish” (The River of Forgetfulness), but it makes most sense after the staphylococcus reference of “Latin Vocabulary” (p. 55). Also in “Latin Vocabulary”, the mention of an aging woman/ snuggling this winter night for warmth/ [...] against/ habit’s bony, warm red flannel back also sadly recalls the restless marital couple from “The Crust House” (Indelible), who conclude by (retreating to the corners of the bed/ like parentheses, but back to back). I could go on and on, and indeed I have already. Tracing such threads through Hadas’s tapestry will occupy many a future scholar.
     I was therefore delighted to see that the villanelle, a form Hadas last shared with us in Halfway Down the Hall’s “Mutability”, is represented three times in The Ache of Appetite. This form seems a perfect match for her, for who is more recursive than Hadas? But I was doubly delighted to see how stunningly effective her trademark use of consonantal off-rhyme was in these examples. “The Family Room” opens: Emily Bronte turns her back./ A drawing in a diary/ Shows her writing in a book; the first and third end-rhymes of each three-line unit ping-pong erratically from there: look, back, alike, book, struck, back, shook, book, luck, back, book. In the villanelles “Skin” and “The Boat”, she tweaks the end-rhyme vowels of the tercets' second lines as well. I was immediately aflutter to try this disorienting effect in a villanelle of my own, and the fact that my first attempt was utterly hideous only increased my admiration for Hadas.
     In conclusion, although Rachel Hadas has often given us successive views of the same themes, she repeatedly delivers a fresh perspective tonally, formally, and metaphorically. The Ache of Appetite does not disappoint.