TERRY GROSS, host:
April is poetry month, which means that there are some really good poetry books being published this month. My guest, Robert Hass, is responsible for two of them. He edited a new collection called "Song of Myself: And Other Poems by Walt Whitman."
We'll talk with him about Whitman a little later this month. But now he's going to read a poem about the death of his brother from his new collection of poems, "The Apple Trees at Olema."
Hass is a former poet laureate of the U.S. His previous collection, "Time and Materials," won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.
Robert Hass, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want you to read a poem called "August Notebook: A Death." But before you read it, I'd like you to introduce it to us.
Mr. ROBERT HASS (Poet): Well, this is either a poem or a series of poems about the death of my younger brother, written right after - immediately after he died a couple of summers ago. And the first poem in this series is called "River, Bicycle, Peony." And it begins with a series of typos, so its hard to read something like this:
I woke up thinking abou(ph) my broth(ph) that - and then, that was my first bit of early morning typing. So the first dignity, it turns out, is to get the spelling right.
I woke up thinking about my brother's body. Apparently it's at the medical examiner's morgue. I found myself wondering whether he was naked yet and whose job it was to take clothes off and when they did it. It seemed unnecessary to undress his body until they performed the exam, and that isn't going to happen until later this morning. And so I found myself hoping that he was dressed still, though smell may be an issue, or hygiene.
When the police do a forced entry for the purpose of a welfare check and the deceased person is alone, the body goes to the medical examiner's morgue in the section for those deaths in which no evidence of foul play is involved, so the examination for cause of death is fairly routine.
GROSS: How did you brother die?
Mr. HASS: Well, he overdosed on - probably on prescription drugs. Lay down. I -we'll never know whether it was an accident or a suicide.
GROSS: Was he lost to you already?
Mr. HASS: No. He was quite present to me and he had just - my younger brother was - had cerebral palsy and had other physical problems, and by the - he was in his early 50s, I guess, late 40s, early - how old was he anyway? He could not walk anymore, though he'd just been in a therapeutic situation in which he was trying to get back some ability to walk. He was a street person. He was kind of a scoundrel in the way that you are.
GROSS: When you say a street person, do you mean he lived on the street?
Mr. HASS: Well, he lived on the street for a while and then I decided I couldnt go through life with worrying about him being on the street so I sort of became his - I kept an eye on him to see that he had a roof over his head. And so he lived in an SRO, lived on SSI in San Francisco on a street full of people living in single residence housing with getting help from - they would get about 900 a month from the government and pay five to six hundred a month in rent and got on the street with the extra money and hustled to get through the month.
GROSS: Did your brother have a hustle?
Mr. HASS: No, he never had a successful hustle. But he was just - there's a passage here that would convey some sense of what that life was like maybe. If this would be...
Mr. HASS: ...helpful. It begins with my well - today his body is consigned to the flames and I begin to understand why people would want to carry a body to the river's edge and build a platform of wood and burn it in the wind and scatter the ashes in the river. As if to say, take him, fire, take him, air, and river take him. Downstream. Downstream. Watch the ashes disappear in the fast water or, in a small flaring of anger, turn away, walk back toward the markets and the hum of life, not quite saying to yourself, there, the hell with it, it's done.
I said to him once, when he'd gotten into some scrape or other, you know, you have the impulse control of a ferret. And he said, yeah? I don't know what a ferret is, but I get greedy. I don't mean to, but I get greedy. An old grubber's beard, going gray, wheelchair, sweats, a street person's baseball cap. I've been thinking about Billie Holiday. He said, you know, if she were around now, she'd be nothing. You know what I mean? Hip-hop? Never. She had to be born, see, at a time when they were listening, when they were writing the kinds of songs that people were listening to the kinds of songs she was great at singing.
And I would say, you just got evicted from your apartment, you can't walk, you have no money, so I don't want to talk to you about Billie Holiday right now, okay? And he would say, you know, I'm like Mom. I mean, she really had a genius for denial, don't you think? And the thing is, you know, she was a pretty happy person.
So on. Anyway, a portrait of...
GROSS: Well - that's great.
Mr. HASS: He didnt have a hustle. He had a way of staying alive.
GROSS: Did he have - you mentioned he had cerebral palsy and couldnt walk, but did he have mental problems too?
Mr. HASS: No. I mean he had mental problems in that he was incapable of showing up for three consecutive days if you asked him to, so he could never hold down a job. But he was, you know, he had a wide curiosity and he was an extremely manipulative person but he wasnt crazy.
GROSS: And it didnt upset him to live in an SRO or on the street.
Mr. HASS: He didnt like living on the street and he was terrified at the end of his life, because he'd sort of run out of scams, that he might end up on the street.
GROSS: It's just one of those crazy, crazy family things. You know, where like youre - youre a former poet laureate, professor at UC Berkeley and your brother's living on the street.
Mr. HASS: Mm-hmm. For one period he lived on the street. Well, everybody who has family like this goes through this business about tough love, how much do you help people? How much do you let them suffer the consequences of their choices?
Mr. HASS: And so he went through one period on the street and I at a certain point said, well, turns out I'm one of the people who just can't stand this, so I saw to it that his rent got paid each month.
GROSS: So had you talked yourself into the tough love approach?
Mr. HASS: I tried.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HASS: And he liked to talk about it. You know, I mean he's perfectly interested in having long psychological conversations about - he didnt have anything else to do all day except have long ironic psychological conversations about things like that, so he enjoyed it.
GROSS: Can I just ask you - this is very personal, but were you surprised by what you felt after your brother's death?
Mr. HASS: Yeah. I was surprised and well, I was very surprised by his death, first of all. I wasnt expecting it. I'd seen him a few days before and thought he was kind of back and thought he was going to be okay for a while. And I dont in truth know whether he killed himself or not. And he had a couple of times threatened to kill himself if I, you know, he would say if I dont get this money to pay so-and-so or if I dont get this money to, you know, I'm going to, I'm just - I dont want to live.
And I would say, youre telling me that if I won't give you $300 youre going to kill yourself? And he'd say no, I mean no, no, I know that's crazy. And he would laugh and make it as a joke. So it was there. But he seemed in good spirits and he seemed - I dont think I can do I don't think I can do this narrative. But yes, I was surprised that he died. I was surprised at how much I missed him or the minute he was gone how much I missed him. He didnt have anything else to do so we talked on the phone quite a lot.
He dropped out of school in I think his sophomore year of high school so he got his education watching - he discovered the History Channel when he was in his 30s and he would call me to tell me all the just amazing things that he'd learned about Andrew Carnegie or about World War I. And so he was interesting and he had many funny stories about the life that he lived and the people he lived among. So yeah, I missed him. I miss him still.
GROSS: Why did you decide to write a poem about your brother and his death?
Mr. HASS: I didnt. I just - you know, what poets do is sit down in the morning and write and see and there it was, so I just kind of wrote my way through the - what came to me.
GROSS: Maybe the best way to end our conversation is to ask you to read the end of the poem for your brother.
Mr. HASS: Yeah. I can read a part of the poem, what will feel like an envoy, and that was in a way got the sort of ground(ph) tone of what I was - the way I was feeling that loss.
You can fall a long way in sunlight. You can fall a long way in the rain. The ones who don't take the old white horse take the evening train.
GROSS: Thank you so much for...
Mr. HASS: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: ...reading part of the poem about your brother and for talking with us about him. It's great to talk with you again.
Mr. HASS: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Robert Hass's new collection of poems is called "The Apple Trees at Olema." You can read the full text of his elegy to his younger brother on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Later this month we'll talk with Hass about his new collection of Walt Whitman poems.
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