New York, NY: Knopf, 2015. 112 pages. $26.00.
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In The Beauty, Jane Hirshfield ushers in moments of revelation through poems at once earthly and philosophical, exploring everything from cellophane to the proteins that thread the speaker’s spine. I’ve spent the past week walking around with her poem “In a Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed” in my head. It’s too easy to say her lines linger like the scent of the morels, “which darken the air they come into,” but it’s true. The mushrooms’ scent is held
As the sea must keep for a long time the scent of the whale.
As a person who’s once loved completely,
a country once conquered,
does not release that stunned knowledge.
This is what Hirshfield’s books do, time and again: they waken us through their travels in the elemental; or rather, they waken us to the ways the elemental travels through us.
The deft handling of “stunned knowledge” is not something new to Hirshfield’s poetry (The Beauty is her eighth collection), which belies categorization because it is so uniquely itself. Discovery in a Hirshfield poem unfolds through images both simple and riddling, like “The package so large even wetness becomes an umbrella” (“Wet Spring”) or the “hammer left on in daylight” (“As a Hammer Speaks to a Nail”). Similar to Hirshfield’s previous books, The Beauty pays homage to mundane objects (umbrella, hammer, corkboard, handkerchief) and returns us often to the animal world, from which the poet often draws comparisons (as in “I Wanted Only a Little,” where “Grief shifts, / as a grazing horse does, / one leg to the other.”)
To suggest that The Beauty is simply more of the same, though, would not do it justice. Most unique to this collection is a series of eleven “My . . . ” poems, beginning with “My Skeleton” and ending with “My Sandwich.” These poems form the first of the book’s six sections (after its “Fado,” which acts as prelude) and establish its major themes: the changing body, the role of fate, the blurry boundaries between self and other. In these poems, the skeleton first grows then shrinks. The sandwich is first “not me then is.” Hirshfield’s seventh book, Come, Thief, includes one such poem (“My Luck”), but this group lets us settle more deeply into the possibilities (and ironies) of the approach.
The titling of these poems—“My Skeleton,” “My Proteins,” “My Eyes,” “My Memory” (etc.)—proposes an ownership that quickly gives way to complications of I and thou. “My Skeleton,” for instance, does not speak of the bones in terms of possession but addresses them as a beloved you, noting that “Someday you, / what is left of you, / will be flensed of this marriage.” “My Proteins” expands the field of intimacy, exploring the body as “a cloverleaf crossing / well built, well traversed,” a microcosm of organisms:
Ninety percent of my cells, they have discovered,
are not my own person,
they are other beings inside me.
As ninety-six percent of my life is not my life.
Yet I, they say, am they—
my bacteria and yeasts,
my father and mother,
my drivers talking on cellphones,
my subways and bridges,
my thieves, my police
who chase my self day and night.
So goes the paradox of these poems: there is otherness within a single body, even while the thief and police might be one.
Connection to the world through the experience of a very mortal body continues throughout the book. In “All Souls,” Hirshfield describes the sound of bells on the day of the dead:
Barred from form, barred from bars,
from relation. The beauty—unspeakable—
was beauty. I drank it and thirsted,
I stopped. I ran. Wanted closer in every direction.
Each bell stroke released without memory
or judgment, unviolent, untender. Uncaring.
And yet: existent. Something trembling.
I—who have not known bombardment—
have never heard so naked a claim
of the dead on the living, to know them.
Here, we get Hirshfield’s musicality at its finest. In addition to the book’s many references to songs, bells, and ghosting echoes, there are instances of intense sonic wordplay, like the repetition and alliteration in “from form . . . from bars.” We hear the gong of the bells in the repeated “b” sounds, where the “bars” give way to the titular “beauty.” We hear the assonance of “yet: existent . . . trembling,” “not . . . bombardment,” and “naked . . . claim.” In this moment where the claim of the dead runs bodily through the speaker (“I drank it and thirsted”), it does so primarily through sound.
Song is also, importantly, the gesture with which Hirshfield opens the book. The first poem in the collection is titled after the Portuguese fado, a folk song whose name translates to fate. In Hirshfield’s “Fado,” a woman’s song “puts every life in the room / on one pan of a scale, / itself on the other.” Not only must fate weigh these lives, Hirshfield suggests, but so too might song. In The Beauty, song provides both comfort and haunting echo, compelling us to listen to and love the lushness and its transience. In the collection’s third-to-last poem, “Zero Plus Anything Is a World,” Hirshfield offers a series of “Recipes” for living in such a world (“add salt to hunger,” “add time to trees”) culminating in the command:
add death to life.
love without swerve what this will bring.
Sister, father, mother, husband, daughter.
Like a cello
forgiving one note as it goes,
The cello knows we cannot have the song any other way (and listen to those lovely “o” sounds in the final stanza). Hirshfield knows.
While The Beauty explores weighty topics, Hirshfield avoids falling into self-conscious pensiveness. Instead she punctuates with humor and invites readers into the meaning-making. We see this especially in the section of “pebble” poems (“Twelve Pebbles”), which continues a practice from her previous books. These brief poems are koan-like, epigrammatic, taking their title from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Pebble,” which ends, “Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye.” In a 2011 interview with Brian Bouldrey, Hirshfield says these poems “are not haiku, but they are short, slightly intransigent poems that require some response in the mind of the reader before they are finished.” Some of Hirshfield’s pebbles demand more conjecture then others, and the best are deceptively simple, such as “Humbling: An Assay” which is comprised of only two words: “Have teeth.” Or take, for example, the following:
I Know You Think I’ve Forgotten
without coat without hat
We lean into the silence at the end of the poem: “without coat without hat” . . . what? But of course that gaping hole is the invitation, the thing not forgotten but whipping around our ears like rain.
Reading The Beauty reminds me that Hirshfield spent eight years as a full-time Zen student, three of them in monastic silence. Speaking with Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, she refers to this time as “the diamond at the center of [her] life.” I was going to write that this might account for the otherworldly tone of her poetry (and her poems are impressively un-grasping, even when speaking of loss or longing), but I’m struck by the fact that it’s the opposite, really. Hirshfield’s silences, like her songs, reconnect us to both our selves and our broader world. We are lucky to find ourselves again in her music.
Hirshfield, Jane. “A Conversation between Brian Bouldrey & Jane Hirshfield, Pt. 3.” By Brian Bouldrey. The Best American Poetry. The Best American Poetry, Sept. 23, 2011. Web. Dec. 5, 2015.
Kaminsky, Ilya and Katherine Tower. “Zen and the Art of Poetry: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield.” Agni. Boston University, 2006. Web. Dec. 5, 2015.
Zbigniew, Herbert. “Pebble.” Selected Poems. Trans. Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books Inc., 1968.