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.

1 comment:

  1. a wonderful review. the reviewer's selection of poems, parts of poems to discuss, perfect.