Monday’s Poems: Three by Jane Hirshfield

 

BRUISES

In age, the world grows clumsy.

A heavy jar
leaps from a cupboard.
A suitcase has corners.

Others have no explanation.

Old love, old body,
do you remember—
carpet burns down the spine,
gravel bedding
the knees, hardness to hardness.

You who knew yourself
kissed by the bit of the ant,
you who were kissed by the bite of the spider.

Now kissed by this.

 

 

THE PROMISE

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider,
who fled.

Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,
Always.

 

 

SOMETIMES THE HEART IS A SHALLOW AUTUMN RIVER

Is rock and shadow, bird.
Is fry, as the smallest fish are called,
darting in the pan of nearness.

The frog’s flawless interpretation of the music “Leaf”
is a floating black-eyed emerald
slipped between the water and its reflections.

And caution, and hope, and sorrow?
As umbrellas are, to a mountain or field of grass.

© by Jane Hirshfield.  From Come, Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).  Printed by permission of Jane Hirshfield.

 

Jane Hirshfield is the author of seven poetry collections, a book of essays, and several anthologies collecting the work of women poets of the past. Her many awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. She has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Bennington College, and elsewhere, and presents her work widely at universities and colleges, literary centers, and festivals throughout America and abroad. Her most recent collection of poems, Come, Thief, was published by Knopf earlier this month.

 

Arts & Academe‘s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes: Daniel Halpern, in his introduction to Holy Fire: Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment, offers three criteria for visionary poems: “First, they must honor their language (oral or written), whether it be English, French, German, Kashmiri, Hindi, Sanskrit, or Persian, acknowledging Santayana’s observation that ‘the height of poetry is to speak the language of the gods.’ Second, the poems must fulfill, with unerring precision, the requirements of their form, whatever that form turns out to be. And third, the poetry must operate in a visionary realm—that is, present a view of the world that violates the superficial, reaches through the surface to touch the primal material. Wordsworth would call this act the seeing into the life of things; Ruskin wrote, ‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way . . . . To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion—all in one.’”

Poet, essayist, and translator Jane Hirshfield (whose evocative versions of the 14th-century Kashmiri poet Lalla and the 16th-century north Indian bhakti mendicant ecstatic Mirabai grace Halpern’s anthology) is a visionary. Rarely making spirituality and her own long Zen practice her overt subject, Hirshfield nonetheless makes poems which possess a subtle lucidity that is accessible and understated on the one hand, and suffused with a resonant “beyonding” of the self and the quotidian on the other. Her poems press the experiential [an act of spiritual attention on the order of fellow visionary Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote in a journal (1871), “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you”] in order to transcend soma and solipsism in service of what Halpern calls a “revision[ing of] the world, perhaps even [the creation of a] better world.”

Some might flinch at the notion of any ideal as unfathomable as the creation of a better world, and yet there’s nothing Pollyanna-ish about Hirshfield’s project. As Rosanna Warren puts it, Hirshfield’s “poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature.”  Yet how to pull off a poetic practice visionary and optimistic over decades characterized by increasingly entrenched social, cultural, and political extremes of irony, skepticism, abstracted emotion, rampant materialism, technological cocooning and detachment, superficiality, and thoughtless, fundamentalist fear and isolationism?  What accounts for the golden hold and continually refreshed staying power of this remarkable poet?

It is arguable that the riddle, the existential joke of being, of meaning, of Dickinson’s “prank of the Heart at play on the Heart,” is as powerful a source as song for the lyric poem. Central to Hirshfield’s vision is a kind of holy delight that is at the heart of riddles and koans—not the momentary humor of punning or mere cleverness or showing-off, but rather the deep pleasure of discovery of the word in or behind or beyond the world, and vice versa. Northrop Frye writes, “The real answer to the question implied in a riddle is not a ‘thing’ outside it, but that which is both word and thing, and is both inside and outside the poem. This is the universal of which the poem is the manifestation, the order of words that tells us of battles and shipwrecks, of the intimate connection of beauty and terror, of cycles of life and death, of mutability and apocalypse.”

“Bruises,” “The Promise,” and “Sometimes the Heart is a Shallow Autumn River,” all from Hirshfield’s brand new collection Come, Thief, operate, in their various ways, as visionary riddles about the aging body, the “autumn” of life, and what abides. Interestingly, the titles provide the “answers” from the start (Frye: “It is common to give the ‘solution’ of riddle poems in their titles, and in such poems we move from work to title. Here is what I have to say about something; guess what it is”), allowing Hirshfield room to move into her material in a manner also essential to her poetry: It is the getting there (the Way) and not the destination, the answer, that is the source of her joy and revelation.

“Bruises” begins with a playful displacement of agency.  It is the world, the speaker announces with the wry understatement of a stand-up comedian, even the world beyond our ken, that grows awkward and bruise-prone, not we:

 

In age, the world grows clumsy.

A heavy jar
Leaps from a cupboard.
A suitcase has corners.

Others have no explanation.
What follows, in a seamless but ecstatic turn I associate with Hirshfield, is an apostrophic call to the speaker’s “Old love, old body”(here the speaker could be addressing an old lover as well as conflating, appositively, “love” and “body”—that is, her body is her old love) to recall other, prior, more erotically caused contusions (“carpet burns down the spine, / gravel bedding / the knees, hardness to hardness”). The address to the body continues in the penultimate stanza, in which Eros (“You who knew yourself kissed”) is mixed with the more dangerous love-bite language of venom and stings.  The punch-line, perfectly timed and granted a stanza break and the full weight of the silence of white space around it—“Now kissed by this”—is the sucker punch, returning us to the title and first line with renewed and deepened awareness: There are many kinds of bruises, and the hardest, the most painful mark we bear is the full on and in the mouth registering of our aging, our mortality.

“The Promise” (a promise is itself a kind of riddle) teases us and draws us in—what is the promise? what is being pledged? by whom? to whom? why? A surprise, then, not to be given a straight narrative, description, or definition of said promise, but rather an anaphoric catalogue of what appears to be less a promise than a command. In each stanza, the order to “stay” is pitched to an array of fauna and flora, and the response in each case is charged with a darkly whimsical humor, figurative and metaphysical:

 

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider,
who fled.

Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

 

Even the great and enduring earth, to which the speaker appeals after she feels her own body’s mutability, will not obey the speaker’s command, but rather looks back “with a changing expression, in silence.” Flowers fade, spiders build transient houses in air, leaves redden and fall, bodies, too, tremble and fail, and the cosmos itself is in eternal and indifferent flux. It is not until the last stanza that Hirshfield, without fanfare, reveals her answer: It is love and love alone that is capable of making a promise to abide. This “answer” might seem simple or unearned if not for the accrued force of the poem’s incrementally repeated litany. It is the stations of the spiritual riddle that enact Hirshfield’s vision in this poem: its difficulty, its veracity, and its worth.

Something I’ve admired about Hirshfield’s work since I began to read it years ago is its timeless ethos. There is nothing in any of these three poems (formally, imagistically, in terms of diction) that would suggest they couldn’t have been written hundreds of years ago or belong to some future era. Even earlier poems like “Why Bodhidharma Went to Howard Johnson’s” strike me as timely (and wisely funny) to all ages. I have long speculated that Hirshfield’s practice of translation (she is especially  well known for her brilliant versions and translations of Japanese and Chinese poets) has contributed to this rare quality in her work. It’s as though she only uses words she might be able to translate from a foreign tongue, and this lends the work the shimmer of several minds at once—allowing that breaking of one world into another, of the discovery of worlds within worlds, words within words.

I especially feel this in “Sometimes the Heart is a Shallow Autumn River,” a “definition” poem of figurative dazzlement and shape-shifting. Metaphor, of course, is also riddling, tricking us into seeing the seemingly inevitable but unlikely alliances between two different entities. Even the opening stanza, with its pair of metaphorical “equations,” is of at least two minds, suggesting that the heart is both what is in the bed of and what is reflected in the “shallow autumn river.” In stanza two, Hirshfield offers a new metaphor, a meta-metaphor, in which the frog/leaf-music/gem/iris/poem slips “between the water and its reflections” like an angel, an entity belonging both to land and water, earth and heaven. The final note in this figurative chord cuts straight to what’s at stake: “And caution, and hope, and sorrow? / As umbrellas are, to a mountain or field of grass.” Such a profoundly comic vision here, of the highest order—we see those little umbrellas of our worry and our self-absorption and our cares against the vast expanse of the motions of the universe. And this returns us to the title, to our hearts, to what we can hold and refract and reflect and let go.

We see, then, how Hirshfield fulfills Halpern’s notions of what makes for a visionary poetics. Hers is a poetry that honors its language, fulfills the shape of a mystery and discovery shared by the riddling koan, and pursues its ecstasy of deep seeing, something akin to Hopkins’s instress. It is not new to think of all poetry as a kind of “translation” from experience to language, but in an essay about W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic writes, “Translation is one of the very few human activities where the impossible actually occurs on a fairly regular basis. Merwin once said that translation of comedy is one of the great disciplines because in translating jokes, if one gets anything wrong, nothing works. This is true of poetry too, where not only the words have to be translated but also the tone of voice, the prosody with its meaningful pauses, and various other near-intangibles that make a poem or a joke what it is.” Hirshfield’s poetry is deeply serious in the most comedic sense (“comedy” <late 14c., from O.Fr. comedie, 14c., “a poem,” not in the theatrical sense, from L. comoedia, from Gk. komoidia “a comedy, amusing spectacle,” from komodios “singer in the revels,” from komos “revel, carousal” + oidos “singer, poet,” from aeidein “to sing”).  I am grateful for the fleet travel her poems make in the mysteries of mortality, their “flawless interpretation of the music ‘Leaf.’”

 

 

(Photograph by Flickr CC user Mourner)

 

 

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