Reviewed by Steven Ratiner, Washongton Post, August 6, 2006
Verse that conveys the humble profundity of Buddhism
Poems By Jane Hirshfield
HarperCollins. 97 pp. $23.95
"Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry." So said one of the most accomplished practicioners writing in English today, Seamus Heaney. For him, the power of the poem is achieved by running more voltage through the poetic device, by "over-languaging the language." What distinguishes this very specialized work from all the rest of written expression is that palpable sense of more. Or sometimes less. . . .
Despite a number of interesting experimental movements, the dominant mode in American poetry over the past quarter-century is a kind of secular plainsong that steers clear of rich musicality, complicated structures and that notion of superfluity. Perhaps the contemporary sensibility has been affected by how frequently we've seen bad ideas trotted out in elaborate intellectual clothing. From poetry to politics to pop culture, we've learned to be wary of the thorn tucked away inside the dramatic flourish, the manipulative impulse concealed by stylistic embellishment. In reaction, the governing poetic principles seem to be clarity and simplicity.
In the hands of a skilled writer, especially one who has committed years to observing and thinking about some small corner of existence -- poets such as Jack Gilbert, Mary Oliver and Louise Glück -- this poetry can achieve breathtaking effects that are all the more mystifying because, at first, we can find no apparent cause for this sudden in-rush of energy.
Very quietly, Jane Hirshfield has been producing work that is earning her a place in the pantheon of those modern masters of simplicity. The publication of her sixth volume of poetry, After , will only serve to broaden her audience and solidify that reputation.
Hirshfield is a practicing Buddhist who has made her home in northern California -- as did the venerable Gary Snyder before her. But her religious discipline is rarely an overt presence in her texts. Her poems are more in the spirit of the T'ang Dynasty masters such as Wang Wei, whose spiritual outlook was wholly ingrained in the simplest practices of daily life, a reflected light emanating from the landscape. By paring down the moment to its essential elements and allowing ephemeral thoughts to be anchored within the tangible things of the world, Hirshfield comes up with poems that brilliantly portray even mundane experiences as if they were nothing short of revelation.
Take the following short poem, which appears near the end of the new collection:
The red scarf
still hangs over the chairback.
In its folds,
like a perfume
that cannot be quite remembered,
That the scarf "still" hangs over the chair makes us privy to a passage of time, a certain intimacy, the utter daily-ness of even the dearest relationships. Who laid it there, after a long day, intending to tidy up later when time allowed? And who voices the poem's two simple observations, all while leaving the depths of emotion unrevealed? Why can't she bring herself to put away the errant scarf, to restore the household to its proper order? That "inconceivable before" gradually solidifies in our consciousness until it becomes an irrevocable border; beyond it remain those old days of normality that, as is often the case, only convey how loved they were through their absence.
The elegiac spirit of the poem is quietly reinforced in even the smallest elements; and though the aural quality of the poem is subdued, listen to the interplay between the soft burr of the abundant r's set against the hard-edged limitation of the c's. Even before the mind comprehends, the ear responds to that muted tug-of-war between longing and the acceptance of loss.
The poet's approach is clearly at work in "After Long Silence," the collection's opening poem, bringing to bear, in equal measures, precise vision and rigorous thought; the result is a marvelous sense of spaciousness. As she stands alone in her kitchen at night, Hirshfield's words create a clearing where even the ordinary moment is capable of yielding a sense of life's momentousness (which the Buddhist terms "mindfulness" but the poet is too self-possessed to lecture us about). The poem concludes with two lines that set the benchmark for the work to come:
The untranslatable thought must be the most precise.
Yet words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins.
Even when tackling subjects of obvious emotional intensity -- the deathbed of a friend ("The Bell Zygmunt"), the challenges of a spiritual life ("Theology" and "Between the Material World and the World of Feeling") -- Hirshfield strives for that same equanimity and unswerving attention, envying "the blue-green curve of a vase's shoulder, which holds whatever is placed within it -- the living flower or the dead -- with an equally tender balance."
Of course, Hirshfield's thoroughly human poems can only steer toward that perfection: "I, who am made of you only," she says to and about her concept of the moment, "speak these words against your unmasterable instruction -- // A knife cannot cut itself open,/ yet you ask me both to be you and to know you" ("Instant Glimpsable Only for an Instant"). This metaphysical balancing act is where the poet has situated her writing. When the poems are less than enthralling, we find the balance has shifted dangerously toward the "knowing" rather than the "being" side of the scale, as in some of the "Assays" series -- deep investigations of the ordinary (like "Gravel," "Tears," and even those humble prepositions "Of," "To," and "And").
Yet even the least successful of them is still thoughtful, inventive, beautiful -- qualities many a lesser poet would bargain for in a heartbeat. And in the case of her best work, the poems are so open-hearted and marvelously conceived that they are not just beautiful themselves but effortlessly contain beauty -- much like her imagined blue-green vase. What's more, they make us suddenly aware of what we too contain at every savored moment of the day. ·
Steven Ratiner is a poet and writer in Arlington, Mass.