Friday, January 01, 2021

The Age of Infinity and Disappearance in Jane Hirshfield’s new collection of poems: Ledger

Jane Hirshfield

The Age of Infinity and Disappearance in Jane Hirshfield’s new collection of poems Ledger

article by Michael Todd Steffen

You can be young Joe, thirteen years old, ridden with the anxiety of time and mortality at the discovery that the universe is finite, in Woody Allen’s Radio Days. Or you can be an American poet just past being fifty-something, writing an ode to the precedent decade of your life, as Jane Hirshfield, from her new book Ledger (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2020, ISBN 9780525657804), in the poem “TO MY FIFTIES.”

It is not so much an address by Hirshfield to her fifth decade of life, her fifties. It is to the substance of the maturity of her craft, the opening of inspiration, where a balance or equality has been struck between the poet and her light, creating the “You” of other within self to be reckoned with, with an exact reversal of terms expressing this equality, echoing the title of her visionary 2013 collection Come Thief:

You opened me

as a burglar opens a house with a silent alarm.

I opened you

as a burglar opens a house with a silent alarm.

It registers a memorable moment akin to “the uncertain hour before morning” section in T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding—“So I assumed a double part, and cried And heard another’s voice cry, ‘What! Are you here?’” Yet Hirshfield’s unraveling of the climactic moment turns at once to the familiar and to parable:

We knew we had to work quickly,

bears ecstatic, not minding the stinging.

The short poem goes on to unfold on a variation of anaphora: “Or say it was this:…Or this…Say:…”—concluding:

We were our own future,

a furnace invented to burn itself up.

For its facility, John Keats’s conclusion to one of his famous odes, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” has brought him, one of the undisputed Pleiades of English poetry, to considerable critical scrutiny.

But we do not scrutinize poets these days for their conclusions so much as for their faculties with associations, their ability to leap from association to association. (Eliot esteems the associative sensibility—yet in an age more beset with stultification than with diversity.)

The two middle sections of “TO MY FIFTIES” display Hirshfield’s virtuosity with transition, which might be identified as the virtuosity of the collection Ledger as a whole. One strophe reassures us with the familiar and particular, in this instance, of doing stuff at home, in an act of preparing a gift for others:

We were the wax paper bag

in which something was wrapped.

What was inside us

neither opaque nor entirely transparent.

Afterwards, we were folded into neat creases.

This is a sort of witness, metaphor of things (wax paper and then the things wax paper holds—“neither opaque nor entirely transparent”).

Yet it is important and honest for Hirshfield to recognize the poem as itself in textual terms:

Say we were paired


still evoking figures—

cupping two dates, a hyphen,

and much that continues unspoken—

“unspoken” to announce even the silence, the margins of white paper bespeaking the line breaks of verse that make poems different from prose.

Hirshfield’s poetry has been selected for seven editions of Best American Poetry. She is a distinguished member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, earning Kay Ryan’s praise as “a true person of letters—an eloquent and exacting poet, first, but in addition the author of enduring essays and influential translations and anthologies…bringing the good news about poetry to nearly every state of the union…[with] her elegant ambassadorship for poetry in the greater world (…Japan, Poland, China).”

Hirshfield demonstrates a keen awareness of her times. She may use the fog and mirrors of the trade where they are needed, where we are less concerned, such as with conclusions. She knows our agendas are full and she is mindful to fit her carefully termed and mystifying poems into our fifteen or so minutes here and there. We like passing by and stopping door to door but we don’t like those doors locking shut in our wake.

We live in this early 21st Century, in the moment of the poem just a little less than a well-spaced page, which may account for the rampant proliferation of poems on the accommodating Internet in the last 15 years or so. The good of this phenomenon has ever been with us, in the stars above, with the accompanying vertigo of contemplating—like young Joe in Radio Days—their vastness and finitude, and accelerated disappearance.

As Rosanna Warren reminds us, Hirshfield’s “poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature.”

The poems in Ledger uphold this “sensual philosophy.” Hirshfield can do this with the butterfly net of a couplet, as in the concluding grasp of “NINE PEBBLES”:

This body, still walking.

The wind must go around it.

She does it more elaborately, comparable to the early 17th-century “Metaphysical” poets, in poems like “VEST” with its “many pockets,” concretizing with this single image the several ways diversity and compartmentalization hang in the balance of our lives as well as in our closets:

It is easy to forget

which holds the reading glasses,

which the small pen,

which the house keys,

the compass and whistle, the passport…

The poem proceeds characteristically with a jarring transition from the familiar and reassuring to the less-defined and potentially disturbing:

To forget at last for weeks

even the pocket holding the dates

of digging a place for my sister’s ashes,

the one holding the day

where someone will soon enough put my own.

The vest of Hirshfield’s poem speaks to this time of COVID isolation by holding in another of its pockets, for our restlessness and searching, remnants to our global transport and connectivity:

I rummage and rummage—


for Munich, for Melbourne,

to Oslo.

A receipt for a Singapore kopi.

To familiar readers the passage is like the closing of a dormer window opened in Hirshfield’s 2015 collection The Beauty, from a poem like the Norman Rockwell painting titled “A Common Cold”:

A common cold, we say—

common, though it has encircled the globe

seven times now handed traveler to traveler

though it has seen the Wild Goose Pagoda in X’ian

seen Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in Monterchi

seen the emptied synagogues in Krasnogruda

seen the since-burned souk of Aleppo…

Lists are important—perhaps even necessary—in a time where events of magnitude follow one upon another, like the 30 named hurricanes the troubling year of 2020 has delivered to our quarantined and boarded-up doors and windows.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Rita Baum Holder ( March 16, 1926 to Dec. 30, 2020)

(Left to Right)  Sarah Holder, Rita Holder, Doug Holder, Josh Holder, Donald Holder, and Phil Segal

Rita Baum Holder
( March 16, 1926 to Dec. 30, 2020)

Rita Baum Holder--wife of the late Lawrence J. Holder, beloved mother of Don and Doug Holder, grandmother to Josh and Sarah Holder, and mother-in law to Evan Yionoulis and Dianne Robitaille, passed away Dec 30, 2020 at Mercy Hospital in Rockville Center, NY due to complications from cancer. Holder was born in the Bronx, attended James Monroe High School, and later graduated from Brooklyn College. For many years Holder was a high school biology teacher in the New York City School System. Holder was passionate about the arts--theatre, literature, opera, and film, and instilled this sensibility in her two sons. Later she was proud to attend the Tony Awards, where her son Donald, a noted theatrical lighting designer was honored on several occasions. She also attended many poetry readings that her son Doug was involved in, and even made former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky laugh. For many years Holder was an active member of the Arts Guild of Rockville Centre and received an award for her many contributions. Holder and her late husband Lawrence were world-travelers, and she often documented her trips with wonderful photographs and storytelling. Holder was a volunteer at the Museum of Natural History in New York City--a position she was very passionate about. She will be missed by many--friends, former students, and family. She was a devoted wife, friend, and grandmother. May she rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Murder in the Marsh by Kevin Carey


 The year 1980. The city of Revere. It is a coastal town right outside of Boston, but the Hub's skyline looks like OZ to the denizens of this gone-to-seed burg.

Carey, who is originally from Revere--knows the walk and can talk the talk. He is able to catch the bullshit banter of the barroom, and the invective from the numerous poseurs, thugs and cops, that circle each other in a compost heap of their own making. Carey's brutal dialogue reminds me of my favorite Boston crime writers--the late George Higgins  ( "The Friends of Eddie Coyle").

Have if you will, detective Eddie Devlin. A 40ish-- disgraced cop--with a bad elbow. He has only one true friend, and a wheelchair  bound-- almost girlfriend-- Gwen. She is a muse to this brooding poor man's Hamlet, as he tries to track the murderer who ruined his career and life.

Carey chooses the Marsh in Revere--a poignant symbol of all the hidden and repressed secrets that  are below the scum of the surface. The Marsh is a cesspool of corpses and rotting detritus--it envelopes the whole story.

Devlin is on a journey to redeem himself, and Carey brings his crazed quest into full bloom. He portrays Devlin as almost as feral as his prey.

I can see echoes of Dennis Lehane, and Robert Parker in this story. But this story has a unique Revere feel to it, with all its greasy fried clams, stunted lives, rotgut booze, and the biker bars, wonderfully brought to seedy life.