Noun and Story: Jane Hirshfield

beautyThe Beauty, a 2015 collection by Jane Hirshfield, is filled with the kind of carefully crafted verse that has earned the poet a mantle of awards and acclaim rare amongst contemporary poets. In a year when I’ve spent week after week reading poets from across years and continents, The Beauty felt like the kind of book that should itself inspire such an endeavor. 

Hirshfield is a Bay Area poet, and having lived in the shadow of Mt. Tam myself a number of years back I like to imagine that I have at least a little understanding of the landscape in which some of her poems take place.

But sense of place in Hirshfield’s poems is hardly geographic. Hers is a world of unexpected focus (or focus on the unexpected) and insightful imagination. In “Quartz Clock” Hirshfield juxtaposes her work as a poet with the labors of a scientist.

The ideas of a physicist
can be turned into useful objects:
a rocket, a quartz clock,
a microwave oven for cooking.
The ideas of poets turn into only themselves,
as the hands of the clock do,
or the face of a person.
It changes, but only more into the person.”

Hirshfield’s musings stuck with me. As much as any single poem, her little insights and turns of phrase echoed in my mind all week. “My eyes went / to the window,” she wrote, “as a cat or dog left alone does.” And “It’s hard to unlatch a day / from noun and story.” And: 

A well runs out of thirst
the way time runs out of a week,
the way a country runs out of its alphabet
or a tree runs out of its height.”

The Beauty presents a series of small “pebbles,” mostly two and three line snippets that feel like Haiku gone wild, or Blakean aphorisms with less sharp teeth. The dozen in the middle of the collection provide a breath before the final batch of verse that encompasses much, nodding to physics and poetics, science and soul. In “Entanglement” she describes relationships in ways that make nature, including human nature, feel almost magical.

No one can explain it.
The strange charm between border collie and sheep,
leaf and wind, the two distant electrons.

There is, too, the matter of a horse race.
Each person shouts for his own horse louder,
confident in the rising din
past whip, past mud,
the horse will hear his own name in his own quickened ear.”

The poem goes on with the story of a woman in Beijing buying a metal turtle for her love. It is a story of infinite regression, or at least the peeling away of layers to the point of a single electron. Hirshfield’s poems do as much, word by word, deeper and deeper, making it impossible to unlatch day “from noun and story.”

This is a beautiful book of poetry.

Continuing this year of poetry next week with If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar.

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