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EPISTLE TO CM IN KRAKOW, ON THE OCCASION OF HIS 90TH BIRTHDAY By Robert Hass

July 01, 2001

The fog has hovered off the coast for weeks

And given us a succession of sunlit days

you wouldn't recognize who've grumbled eloquently

about the cool, grey summers up on Grizzly Peak.

Unless they put you in mind of the puppet pageants

your poems remember from Lithuanian market towns

before the First World War. Here's more theater:

a mule-tail doe gave birth to a pair of fawns

just outside your study window one morning

a few weeks ago, in the oxalis under the redwoods.

I didn't see it happen. I dropped by that evening,

and, walking down the path, I saw one fawn,

curled almost in a ball, wet and shivering,

under the small thicket of hazel and toyon.

It was just sunset. I know I'd read somewhere

that the does hide the young as best they can

and then go off to feed and recruit themselves.

A trade-off: they can't nurse unless they feed,

they can't feed if they protect the newborns.

That's a little glitch in engineering

where chance and terror get to take the stage.

I looked closer at the fawn. It was utterly still

except for a faint trembling, eyes closed,

possibly asleep. I leaned closer to smell it.

There was hardly a scent. She had licked all traces

of the rank smell of birth away. It's possible

the washing down reduces the natural scent

of the fawn and gives it some protection

against predators, in this case neighborhood dogs

that would, if they found it, tear it apart.

The dappled coat was still wet from her tongue.

This ungulate behavior is so old that poets

have had it in mind for twenty-five hundred years,

at least. Here's a fragment from Anacreon:

" ... her gently, like a tender unweaned fawn

that's left alone in the forest by its

antlered mother, and trembling with fright."

It's a verse, you will like this detail,

they found in the papyrus that wrapped a mummy

they were examining in Cairo in 1956.

In any case, I thought of you in Krakow

because I thought your response to this creature

would not have been pathos, but anger. I remember

the time in Portland when the woman asked

whether you were a reader of Flannery O'Connor.

You winced regretfully, shook your head,

and said, "You know, I don't agree with the novel."

I think it is part of your great strength

that you don't, in this sense, agree with life--

though it seems to have agreed with you.

You never accepted the cruelty in the frame

of things. And your poems pick up one weapon

after another in your effort to resist it,

or, at least, not to be mute in the face of it.

It must be a wonder to you that the gods

who arrange these things have given you,

who found life such an amazement and a torment,

so many years of it. Well, it's been a gift

to the rest of us. You would, I know, examine

each of the following words suspiciously,

but I mean them in the most traditional way:

dear Czeslaw, happy birth-day. About the fawns--

Mark has seen them grazing with their mother

in the dusk. Gorging on your roses, in fact.

So it seems they made it through the night,

and no dog or car has got to them yet.

Robert Hass, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997, is the co-translator of many of the works of Czeslaw Milosz. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including "Field Guide," "Praise" and "Sun Under Wood."

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