Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 [Buy Now]

By Robert Hass

Ecco, 88 pages, $22.95

Carved out of the sturdiest observations, sanded to clarity, molded to the contours of lives less harried than most of us enjoy, the new collection of poetry by MacArthur “genius” fellow Robert Hass feels like a Southern solstice at the end of a long summer. Here are poems about pears and glittering aspens, about hours spent deliberately. And then Hass has had enough of this autumnal pageantry.

“It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us,” he writes in “The Problem of Describing Trees,” as if sick of it all.

But then what? Time and Materials, which recently won the National Book Award, seems to ask itself that question over and again: If not lovemaking, or the amber shiver of trees losing leaves, what are our elemental things? Is war the seasonal ritual to which we should become accustomed as our planet’s seasons merge?

“Someone will always want to mobilize/Death on a massive scale for economic/Domination or revenge,” Hass writes in “Bush’s War,” an astounding poem that begins with bald political particulars and then crabwalks toward the spectacle of what wars actually do.

“Sweet death, the scourer/The heaped bodies into summer fruit,” Hass writes.

During the years he composed these poems Hass served as U.S. poet laureate and wrote the Poet’s Choice column for the Washington Post. This volume doesn’t have the willed cohesion so common among today’s poets. And that’s a good thing.

Dickensian microportraits, minor pleasures, abound: a man with “an Adam’s apple/So protuberant it’s conducting a flirtation/with deformity” appears in one poem. Another has a “mouth formed by private ironies/As if he’d sat silent in too many meetings with people/He thought more powerful and less intelligent than he.” These gently rewarding verses help us seek out such moments, containing all that beauty, strapping it to a form, and then reminding us of our darker tendencies, too.

Tree of Smoke

By Denis Johnson

FSG, 624 pages, $27

Even if you think you’re done with Vietnam novels, Tree of Smoke could change your mind — it belongs next to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It re-creates the jungle’s ooze and the paranoid warble of a war being micromanaged by the CIA. It encapsulates the long, horrible fallout in prose as good as any Johnson’s written.

Among a large cast of characters, the most important are Skip Sands and his storied uncle, the Colonel. Both wind up in Vietnam, one having proved himself a hero, the other desperate to do so as a CIA operative. Skip’s view of war is forever changed when he witnesses a priest assassinated in the Philippines by the CIA.

Johnson bends his characters over a wooden bench and breaks their innocence. In one early scene, a soldier hikes into the jungle and shoots a monkey because he can. He freaks out. “‘Jesus Christ,'” he shouts, “as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition.” That irrational episode becomes emblematic of U.S. involvement in the war. The novel begins on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, with hard-core military types in tears, and sidewinds into the 1980s, where some of its characters wash up brittle and embittered.

Although Johnson’s characters have remained similarly banged up over the years, this book showcases his mastery of genres. Ten years ago he published a noir; now, with Tree of Smoke, he has written a thriller. The plot is braided within an inch of its life. The prose has been put on steroids and fed a diet of red meat. This stylistic change gives some sequences an action-flick cadence that could easily lend this big, sprawling, flawed but beautiful novel to one sledgehammer of a film, but one fears that would flatten characters like Kathy Jones, the nurse, who barely gets to claim remains. “Now what,” she asks when her husband’s ring is brought to her as evidence of his death.

No one has an answer.

John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.