Andrew C. Gottlieb Reviews The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield
There is an older and subtly wiser Jane Hirshfield who brings to us her eighth collection of poems titled The Beauty, a collection that’s warm with the stylings of Hirshfield’s usual poetic voice yet mature with new insights that speak to gratitude, acceptance, and understanding of the life through which we all age and move. This is a book that speaks to balance, specifically and figuratively: balance of urges and ages, abilities and memories. “Grief shifts, / as a grazing horse does, / one leg to the other.”
We are with the horse, perhaps in a wet field, an early, foggy morning, considering grief, the shifting weight of the emotion, and this is how she does it. What readers welcome in Hirshfield’s work is the way an image, a question, an idea, and perhaps an emotion—these three or four explicit elements—can be linked in one poem with delicate juxtaposition and the barest of shaping to create a deep insight, a calming or energizing epiphany. In a poem titled by its first line, we have this opening couplet:
Like the small hole by the path-side something lives in,
in me are lives I do not know the names of,
a couplet that’s a gentle entry to this atlas of assessment that questions identity and place as memories begin to crowd the path. One feels Hirshfield’s rapture with life, her wonder at the world. She is “a many-roofed building in moonlight,” “seven Spanish bullocks in a high meadow.” Her eyes go to the window, as they do in the poem “My Eyes,” and we sense the energy that’s behind that glance.
Resignation balances the journey. “In a Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed” is a poem of resonance and scent, a poem that starts with the quotidian, an empty kitchen, a lingering aroma, and though fuel-filled—olives and oil, lamp-wick and fat—we end with the depth of the cool mushrooms.
Unburnable mushrooms are other.
They darken the air they come into.
Theirs is the scent of having been traveled, been taken.
We are always balancing the look for what’s next with the weight of the past, the cradling of our most valuable of life experiences, joyful or painful. The poignancy of the moment combines vitality and mortality, the embracing of life with the relinquishing of the same. These are musings Buddhist in nature, and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching sits not far on the shelf from where we read in the evening light with Hirshfield. In the poem, “Souvenir,” she tells us:
I would like
to take something with me
but even one chair
is too awkward
the umbrella is for sale
but in a desert what you want is a soaking
hands left and right useless
heart finally calm
you can’t hold an umbrella there anyhow
and we see these are the contrasts and conflicts with which Hirshfield is coming to terms, the irony of life, these opposites, the paradoxes. But rather than step to the frenetic, the panic of loss, Hirshfield’s heart remains calm, or, rather, grows calm, finally, a peace we feel from the work, as the author feels it herself:
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off our clothes on
our tongues from
This is the end of the poem, “My Life Was the Size of My Life,” a measurement of a life, a clever distancing of narrator and subject, where the narrator is technically the subject, the life, and yet here the life is a character as well, a lover, a partner, a teammate, and so we end up with a memoir and a narrative in one passionate, serious, and playful poem.
There are six sections to the book, each with a solid grouping of poems, though one of the sections contains 12 haiku-like verses and is briefer, a section appropriately called Twelve Pebbles, poems that sit in the literary ecotone between epigram and koan. There are a few longer poems, as well, though most do not stray from their page. This is not narrative poetry, and yet there’s the always the sense that Hirshfield is telling a story, in part due to her specific use of locales (China, a specific street corner, a kitchen) or other nouns, entries to the poem. The way when she tells us her eyes go to the window we’re so suddenly aware of action both before and pending, a natural element of any story. What’s going to happen? we might ask.
The opening poem, Fado, is three simple sentences (only quoted here in part) that, in a way, contain the entire book.
A man reaches close
and lifts a quarter
from inside a girl’s ear,
Which amazes more,
you may wonder:
and a woman in a wheelchair
is singing a fado
that puts every life in the room
on one pan of a scale
itself on the other,
and the copper bowls balance.
This bit of magic reveals much. The book of poems, perhaps, is the fado, this melancholic song of life, and the man and the woman, perhaps, are Hirshfield, magician and writer, and certainly as we crowd around to hear the tales, we find the balance she reveals to us by the weight of the richest of songs.
These poems cradle objects with care, considering their place; as well, life is held up with reverence. Rest assured, this is the Jane Hirshfield writers know and love, a comforting, lively, thoughtful, beautiful collection.