Jane Hirshfield: Incomparable, Uplifting


Jane Hirshfield, whose work often addresses the spiritual side of poetry, brings that transcendent theme to us in beautifully wrought epiphanies, never in-your-face, yet never clouded with their ambiguity. Undoubtedly it is her attitude that gives her poetry that fine edge, as indicated in this quote from her Poetry Foundation’s author description:

Hirshfield once said. “I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.”

This was exactly my feeling long ago when I began writing poetry; I wanted to write and loved writing poetry, but felt I didn’t have the life experience behind me to give my words what I thought of as poetry’s most essential quality: wisdom and that delicate balance between the expressed and the inexpressible. This is what I unfailingly find in Hirshfield’s work. In pursuit of “what it means to live,” she studied at San Francisco Zen center and received a lay ordination in Soto Zen in 1979. This gave her, one might say, mindfulness training, and a way of looking at what it means to be alive, but she never liked it to define her, expressed in various interviews, such as this quote:

“I always feel a slight dismay if I’m called a “Zen” poet. I am not. I am a human poet, that’s all.”

Of course; a poet with a true voice is not confined by their courses of study or even their experiences. And in addition to writing poetry, Hirshfield brought to the attention of the poetry world many overlooked women poets, including traditional Japanese women poets. So without further ado I shall let two of my favorites of hers speak for themselves.

Heat

My mare, when she was in heat,
would travel the fenceline for hours,
wearing the impatience
in her feet into the ground.

Not a stallion for miles, I’d assure her,
give it up.

She’d widen her nostrils,
sieve the wind for news, be moving again,
her underbelly darkening with sweat,
then stop at the gate a moment, wait
to see what I might do.
Oh, I knew
how it was for her, easily
recognized myself in that wide lust:
came to stand in the pasture
just to see it played.
Offered a hand, a bucket of grain—
a minute’s distraction from passion
the most I gave.

Then she’d return to what burned her:
the fence, the fence,
so hoping I might see, might let her free.
I’d envy her then,
to be so restlessly sure
of heat, and need, and what it takes
to feed the wanting that we are—

only a gap to open
the width of a mare,
the rest would take care of itself.
Surely, surely I knew that,
who had the power of bucket
and bridle—
she would beseech me, sidle up,
be gone, as life is short.
But desire, desire is long.

And this one, very different but the same voice.

For What Binds Us

By Jane Hirshfield

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

Remembering Extraordinary Poet Dick Allen

Ordinarily, I would begin such a subject with a basic introduction and offer a poem or two of theirs. But Dick Allen, former Poet Laureate of Connecticut and major American poet, had his own quiet but enduring impact on me, much like the way he touched and enlightened so many others. I’ve read a number of tributes on the site which is both a community and a publication to which he had contributed much, Verse-Virtual, and their stories reflect my own experience.

The site encourages those interested in joining or contributing to Verse-Virtual to email the author of any poems one happens to like, and so on December 19, I emailed Mr. Allen, who responded with great appreciation and grace, sending me a link to an essay he published in the form of a letter to his grandson, Lincoln. I was quite moved by it, and wrote back to tell him that and shared a few photos I had taken (my new obsession) — he expressed appreciation of them in another reply dated December 25, also expressing his religious feelings (I had shared mine, a pro-ecumenical sentiment which he also expressed), and wished me happy holidays. I replied on December 25 at around 1:30am sending holiday wishes but also expressing how highly I regarded him as a human being after our brief exchanges. I wish I could print it all out; he truly brings out he best in others. He wrote that lovely encouraging and full-of-life email on the 24th. I hope he got to read my reply in which I sent more photos, I think better ones. On December 25th, according to his daughter, he suffered a heart attack, and on the 26th, Dick Allen, an incomparable man and poet, passed as he had lived, peacefully in his own unique way, where peace entered and filled the room, as indeed he brightened and uplifted the hearts of so many, including myself. I only knew of his death from the Verse-Virtual site, discovering the new issue dedicated to him. One so often reads about poets and admires their work, but to have a poet of his stature read my email so carefully and respond to each point I made with such grace, sharing personal details like that of a childhood friend and his enduring influence, and his appreciation of reflections I offered on my own life and how his poem affected me — all this has an impact that no biography can convey.

So I think of him as an extraordinarily good man, exuding a rare decency and thoughtfulness that descriptions cannot capture really. And he lived, as those emails bear witness, life fully and with great buoyancy up until the very last breath. My heart goes out to his wife and family, and indeed to all those whose lives he touched. It is a great loss; I feel it with only a brief email exchange. Yet also he left that peace, that uplift, that buoyancy of spirit behind. And his poetry. What a fine and enduring legacy.

One of those who shared wonderful memories of Allen on her exuberant blog is Caryn Mirriam Goldberg, 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate, who also has excellent links to his poetry and more. She took this picture of him, a tall man whom she described as “tree-like”, in front of the oldest beech tree in Pennsylvania, where they shared a memorable moment just feeling the presence of the tree as a being. Yes, a moment of being, a private transformative moment that feels like what happened to me. Extraordinary soul!

With so many poems, any choice would be insufficient, yet… in a way any would also be sufficient. So…

Here’s one published in the Superstition Review that captures his spirit:

The Puzzling Beauty of the Here and Now.

The puzzling beauty of the here and now
affected him strangely,
like names for Chinese watercolor brushes:
Smoky Cloud, Keeps The Best Point,
Crane Neck, Giraffe Neck, Red Pine, White Goose,
and a certain rise of the Merritt Parkway
when all you can see ahead of you
is the sky going on. How puzzling
that “stone breaks open the stone in stones,”
and “peaks link up with peaks that dominate peaks,”
as Shin Tao Chi Shon—sung wrote
in his beautiful painting one morning
while waiting for a friend to come across the mountain
to stay only an hour
after an arduous trip of three days and two nights,
and it would be two days and three nights back. They had tea,
a heron stood in the lake that stretched before them.
There was the even-spaced ringing of a bell. . . .
How puzzling to come across such stories
in a book that’s lain around the house for years,
or on a message board tucked far down inside the Internet
on an out-of-way Website you can only reach
by drifting through meadows. . . . Once there,
he also found links to The Cherry Orchard,
a little Sarabande by Bach,
and into one of those sunlight and brocade interiors
beloved by Dutch painters. Jigsaw puzzles.
Word games. Mazes. Detective stories.
Crossword puzzles. Anagrams. Hidden Things.
Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Where’s the donkey?
The video game search across the universe.
Puzzles made from bent nails. The puzzle of Atlantis.
Who was Jack the Ripper? Where’s the lost gold?
When shall I be found? “The Here and Now-
that sounds like a Bed and Breakfast place,” said a friend,
“or the name of a minor rock group,
the kind that begins and ends playing high school proms
and in town hall gazebos.” Enigma.
Quandary. Toss of the dice.
Riddle. Conundrum. Charade. “How beautiful
for spacious skies,
for amber waves of grain”
always went through his head as he crisscrossed America
east to west, driving the Interstates. “. . . for purple mountain majesties
above the fruited plain,”
although he’d never actually seen a purple mountain
but once, in New York City,
he saw a sculpture of a purple cow.
It had its head down
and was munching on the kind of green cellophane grass
you find in Easter baskets and in baseball stadiums.
“. . . America, America.” Picture a house in Kansas or Oklahoma
with an infinite number of doors that lead to rooms
that lead to other doors. Each door is a sideways lightswitch
illuminating what’s inside each further room. You’re searching,
but every time you think you’ve found the answer
another door opens. . . . We built this city.
Come here, Watson, I need you. . . . If the soul
is a pattern of information, no wonder
there are complex souls and simple souls,
but why does every soul weigh precisely 21 grams
as it flies into the air beyond the body’s death?
“You don’t know what’s happening here, do you, Mr. Jones?”
He opened another door,
and there was a field of sunflowers. It was September,
two days from 9/11. He opened another
and there was no Iraq War, no Abu Ghraib prison.
He opened a third
and there was a New Mexico pueblo,
a black and white rainvase on a window ledge,
sand and the noonday sun. . . . Dimension after dimension,
life after life, each separate and the same,
folds in a Chinese fan,
Fingerprints. Footprints.Revolver in the gutter.
A letter hidden in a secret drawer.
The broken pearl necklace. DNA.
The Case of the Chinese Boxes that was never solved.
. . . . They spoke maybe two dozen words before they parted,
which have not come down to us,
but he liked to think Harry Belafonte echoed them
in Sylvie: “Bring me little water, Sylvie, Sylvie,
Bring me little water out.
Bring me little water, Sylvie,
Every little once in a while”
and the lost amphimacer of the Here and Now,
the puzzlement of it,
and the heron, the lake, and the bell.

———-
And another amazing rich poem:

If You Get There Before I Do

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,
and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards
lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around
and look out the back windows first.
I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines
leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer
of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,
I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,
only a General Store. You passed it coming in,
but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump
along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.
If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,
that state where people are folded into the mountains
like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there
is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate
on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators
and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,
or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many
take small steps into what they never do,
the first weeks, the first lessons,
until they choose something other,
beginning and beginning their lives,
so never knowing what it’s like to risk
last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,
or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.
That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget
to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times
just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing
make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,
the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:
In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break
who had followed the snows for seven years and planned
on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,
to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find
Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,
as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,
old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.
You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed
when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually
you lose your bearings,
your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,
until finally it’s invisible—what old age rehearses us for
and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.
Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,
the long middle passage done,
fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the
checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,
out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,
pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,
then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,
until you tell them all—the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,
those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses—
that I’m allowed,
and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,
I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.