Soul’s Choice

With 'What Light Can Do,' Robert Hass' attention to detail sharp as ever

Last November, during a well-documented police crackdown on Occupy Berkeley, Robert Hass was beaten with a baton. It happened quickly, just after those same police had knocked down his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman. Hass, distinguished UC Berkeley professor and award-winning essayist and poet, was trying to assist her when he was “whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm,” according to his own account.

In the New York Times, 70-year-old Hass wrote of the ordeal, noting that police had beaten students and professors on the same steps named for Mario Savio, leader of the Berkeley Free Speech movement. The op-ed showed Hass’ remarkable gift for attention; that same ability shines in Hass’ new collection of essays, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination and the Natural World (Ecco; $29.99), released last week. Hass appears Aug. 28 at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

Though it’s become a compulsion among so many to click from link to link, never stopping to process the barrage of words and images online, Hass cultivates the art of “seeing” what’s before and behind him. The essays in What Light Can Do settle in, taking the reader on intellectual jaunts, whether through the natural and political history of oak groves on the UC Berkeley campus or the author’s changing relationship with the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

Unifying the book is a calm, steadfast deliberation to the topics at hand, often with an anchor in the natural world. There are no fireworks here. At this stage in his career, Hass has nothing to prove. A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, Hass served as poet laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. He became so dedicated to spreading the gospel of poetry that one colleague recalled the laureate doing everything but “going door-to-door.”

“We have to act as if the soul gets to choose,” writes Hass in the final sentence of What Light Can Do. It’s a poetic call to arms, and a summary of what Hass himself practices throughout these elegantly crafted essays. In the section “Some California Writers,” Hass combs through the lives and writings of Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, Maxine Hong Kingston, William Everson and Mary Hunter Austin. I’d never heard of Mary Austin or her book The Land of Little Rain, a study of the southeastern region of California at the turn of the century, but the stunning portrait of Austin’s talents and backstory inspired me to rush out and find a copy of this little known treasure.

A true sense of Hass’ talents comes when the poet reads to an audience. Here’s a man who’s built an empire on his capacity for attention to the details and complexities of human life, not to mention our undeniable dependence on the natural world—one much too strong to be beaten out by a wanton baton.