Friday, September 22, 2023

Red Letter Poem #177

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – SteveRatiner





Red Letter Poem #177





Aubade Now of Earth



Sun on it again, at first tender.The color of apricots ripening into.


At first there was more to eat, then suddenly less.


For one night only, naked in my arms,wrote Beatriz of Dia, in twelfth-century Occitan,to her longed-for lover.


Aubade now of earth.  Of water.  Of herons and fishes.


Dawn after dawn one night only, we woke in your arms.



                                   ––Jane Hirshfield 




It’s what we do, isn’t it–– we endlessly examine ourselves, compare our life to others, pass judgements.  And two of the most daunting questions we ask: what are we hoping to make from this life?  Then, at certain crucial junctures, we look back and wonder: what have we actually made (as if this will somehow reassure us of how well we’ve lived)?  Of course, this doesn’t just apply to poets and artists, but every conscious being––though it seems to me that the critical impulse runs especially strong in those individuals seeking entrance into the ancient guild of bards and dreamers.  I certainly remember, as a young poet, being awestruck by what ‘the greats’ had constructed, visiting the cathedrals that are Whitman’s and Dickinson’s collected works; Pound and Eliot; Frost, Bishop, and Stevens.  I imagined that each set out to construct just such an encompassing edifice––and it made me wonder if I’d ever build anything of real beauty (even if on a much more modest scale.)  Of course, it takes the accrual of years and reams of scribbled pages before any writer comes to even a moderate understanding of what they are, in fact, fashioning from the ephemeral materials of our craft––voice, image, music, longing, and the landscape of our inky imaginations


It would be understandable if Jane Hirshfield––poet, essayist, translator, educator, activist–– is experiencing one of those moments of reevaluation.  That’s because, last week, The Asking: New and Selected Poems 1971–2023 (Knopf), her tenth collection of poetry, appeared in bookstores.  It contains work from more than fifty years of her life; how could a poet not pause to consider what, precisely, she’s made from those lived decades?  As luck would have it, I was in California last week, and so I attended the launch reading for The Asking.  It was wonderful to experience, in one sitting, Jane’s ripening mind, her evolving voice, reflected in the broad selection she assembled for her listeners.  And, as with many of her earlier readings I’ve attended, hers was an audience who embraced these poems is if they were missives from an intimate. 


Afterward, in the Q&A session, a gentleman in the back asked Jane about what he perceived as the arduous work to attain those luminous visions, to remain open to moments of anguish or tenuous delight––and I could see how pleased the poet was by the question.  That’s because many readers seem to imagine that Jane’s poems––depicting the power of wonder and the glory of the commonplace––are a constant feature of her daily experience.  Likely, it’s our romanticized conception about the life of an acclaimed poet and practicing Buddhist.  So Jane seemed to relish the opportunity to speak about her continual struggles to be attentive to the weathers of the heart, to confront the harsh questions required by mortal experience.  This is the task before artists in all mediums: to embody their own individual responses to a host of mounting concerns: threats to the biosphere, to the cultural landscape, to the survival of all we love.  For Jane, it is only through daily practice, a stubborn and lifelong commitment, that she makes her way (occasionally, she reminds us) toward a restorative clarity and the sheltered harbor of the notebook.  And yet many of her poems have been so widely embraced, they’ve inspired conversations that cross borders and challenge authority.  Her poem “Let Them Not Say” became something of an international rallying cry for environmentalists.  And another, "On the Fifth Day", published soon after, not only went viral, it led also to the founding of a traveling, interactive installation, Poets for Science, championing the need for scientific study and imaginative daring––both of which are under attack in our polarized society


Later, in an e-exchange, I asked Jane whether she’d aspired all along for grand structures in her writing.  “I never had any ambition as a young poet for making a ‘body of work.’  All my life, all I've ever done was write the next poem.”  If there are themes and stylistic characteristics woven throughout these 300-plus pages, “they are the coherences of a life, not of prior decision.  Questions that interested me when I was ten still interest me.  Problems that felt important when I was twenty still do.  This moment's poem answers this moment's need.”  This is what I have long been attracted to in Jane’s work: not cathedrals, but the temple of a single breath, a simple shelter in which to appreciate the music of this present moment.  It seems to me she composes love poems to existence, mindful of how fragile is every embrace.  And then (if we’re lucky) the next breath, the next temple––the outstretched hands welcoming, even as they are letting go. 




The Red Letters 3.0


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To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


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