Against Botticelli

Against Botticelli

by Robert Hass


In the life we lead together every paradise is lost.
Nothing could be easier: summer gathers new leaves
to casual darkness. So few things we need to know.
And the old wisdoms shudder in us and grow slack.
Like renunciation. Like the melancholy beauty
of giving it all up. Like walking steadfast
in the rhythms, winter light and summer dark.
And the time for cutting furrows and the dance.
Mad seed. Death waits it out. It waits us out,
the sleek incandescent saints, earthly and prayerful.
In our modesty. In our shamefast and steady attention
to the ceremony, its preparation, the formal hovering
of pleasure which falls like the rain we pray not to get
and are glad for and drown in. Or spray of that sea,
irised: otters in the tide lash, in the kelp-drench,
mammal warmth and the inhuman element. Ah, that is the secret.
That she is an otter, that Botticelli saw her so.
That we are not otters and are not in the painting
by Botticelli. We are not even in the painting by Bosch
where the people are standing around looking at the frame
of the Botticelli painting and when Love arrives, they throw up.
Or the Goya painting of the sad ones, angular and shriven,
who watch the Bosch and feel very compassionate
but hurt each other often and inefficiently. We are not in any
If we do it at all, we will be like the old Russians.
We’ll walk down through scrub oak to the sea
and where the seals lie preening on the beach
we will look at each other steadily
and butcher them and skin them.


The myth they chose was the constant lovers.
The theme was richness over time.
It is a difficult story and the wise never choose it
because it requires a long performance
and because there is nothing, by definition, between the acts.
It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman
he fucks in the ass underneath the stars
because it is summer and they are full of longing
and sick of birth. They burn coolly
like phosphorus, and the thing need be done
only once. Like the sacking of Troy
it survives in imagination,
in the longing brought perfectly to closing,
the woman’s white hands opening, opening,
and the man churning inside her, thrashing there.
And light travels as if all the stars they were under
exploded centuries ago and they are resting now, glowing.
The woman thinks what she is feeling is like the dark
and utterly complete. The man is past sadness,
though his eyes are wet. He is learning about gratitude,
how final it is, as if the grace in Botticelli’s Primavera ,
the one with sad eyes who represents pleasure,
had a canvas to herself, entirely to herself.

* * *

from Praise, by Robert Hass. New York: Ecco Press 1979.

On February 21, 2008, Robert Hass will deliver the Spencer Trask Lecture at Princeton, cosponsored by the Department of English and the Princeton Environmental Institute. Hass, poet laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997, will read from his latest collection, Time and Materials.

Anne Cheng writes: “This is the poem I return to when I am in need of resistance, resistance to gravity, to sheer fall, which is strange because the poem is about paradises lost. I think it is not because the poem gives me the redemption of human insight (though it possesses that ineffable wisdom so characteristic of Hass’s poetry) but because it takes me through a mind pressing toward that which has already evaporated, and being in the company of this mind reconciles me to the loneliness of being.

(By the way, it was not until the Monterey Aquarium, years after I puzzled over the image, that I saw Hass’s Botticelli!)”