I first started reading Women in Praise of the Sacred while on a ten-day silent retreat in Springwater, New York. The poems seemed luminous and particular, like jewels laid out on dark velvet, like autumn leaves floating on slow-moving water. Did they seem so because of the silence, the openness of my mind? Today, back at home, I found myself reading, toward the end of the book:
A woman is singing in the valley….
Her heart is broken, like the jar she dropped this afternoon among the pebbles in the brook….
In the fields the other voices die with the dying day….
Night grows maternal before this song that goes to meet it; the stars, with a sweetness that is human, are beginning to come out; the sky full of stars becomes human and understands the sorrows of this world….
…From the throat of the woman who keeps on singing, day rises nobly evaporating towards the stars.
(From “Song” by Gabriela Mistral, 1889-1957)
I couldn’t move from my chair. I began reading about the poet who was born in a small town in Chile where as a child she was dismissed from school as “not gifted enough.” She became a schoolteacher and fell in love with a young man who committed suicide when she was only twenty years old. From her mourning came an outpouring of poems, several of which won a national poetry prize and were published in 1917. Three years later, a sixteen-year-old boy brought her his first verses. “You are a poet,” she told him, “and you must keep writing. I have never said that to anyone before.” The boy’s name was Pablo Neruda. Later, Mistral adopted a son who committed suicide when he was seventeen, recapitulating the earlier tragedy of her life. In 1945, she became the first woman poet to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Each poet in the book is introduced with this kind of biographical material, often with riveting personal or historical details that create a setting of warmth and intimacy. Take Kassiane, a well-known Byzantine writer of the early ninth century, who was lashed as a young woman for supporting exiled Orthodox monks. Later she became a nun and founded a convent, composing music and poetry and until her death defiantly expressing her beliefs. “I hate silence when it is time to speak,” she said. From her poem “Troparion”:
Bend to the pain in my heart, You
whose incarnation bent the sky
and left it empty.
I will wash your feet with kisses,
dry them with my hair….
This poem represents a major strand among the themes which weave themselves back and forth through time and space in this book. This theme—in which the Deity or Absolute Reality is addressed as Divine Lover—includes Christian love-poems to God and bhakti poems in both the Hindu and Sufi traditions. For me, one of the surprises as I read was to recognize Emily Dickinson as an exemplar of this tradition. (See her poems “Wild Nights—Wild Nights,” “Let Me Not Thirst,” and “The Infinite a Sudden Guest.”)
Another pervasive theme is the experience of the sacred in this very earthly life. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” as Catherine of Siena said. It’s hard to make choices here; there are so many examples, and they include many of my favorite poems in the book. Almost at random, here is Sun Bu-er, twelfth century Chinese Taoist:
December, and the apricots’
First flowers open.
A person looks,
The blossoms look back:
Plain heart seeing into plain heart.
A third theme, particularly noticeable in more recent poems, is articulated by Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) as she asks: “Why then do we not despair?” This powerful and beloved Russian poet, her mind fearless and delicate, her heart huge, embraces the starkest of realities while making room for Mystery.
Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?
By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.
And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses—
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.
Among the other poets who address this third theme, Edith Sodergran (1892–1923), who died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-one, particularly moved me. Sodergran starts one of her poems:
I had to walk through the solar systems,
before I found the first thread of my red dress.
She ends another poem:
The ripe sweetness of summer dripped
in beads from every tree
and straight into my opened heart
a tiny drop ran down.
Perhaps the answer to Akhmatova’s “Why do we not despair?” is a broken-open heart which can receive and give back light within the darkness.
In this extraordinary anthology, women speak to us from their broken-open hearts. They speak from every part of the world and over a span of time dating back to 2300 B.C.E. Hirshfield herself, sometimes with a collaborator, provides a significant number of the translations. She has a gift for this intimate, painstaking, and nearly impossible task of delivering poems from one language, culture and time period into another, without (by some act of magic) sacrificing spirit and music.
The anthology is rich and moving and full of surprises, and obviously a labor of love. Had its scope been extended to the present day, some of Hirshfield’s own poems might well have been included. Her most recent collection, The October Palace (HarperCollins,1994), is sensual, strict, playful, and deadly serious. Her voice, which is quite individual, sometimes has a sweetness you can almost taste.
I love many of these poems. Any number could, without a ripple, slip into the pages of the anthology. Here’s one:
Within this tree
inhabits the same body;
within this stone
another stone rests,
its many shades of grey
surface and weight.
And within my body,
whose history, waiting,
sings: there is no other body,
there is no other world.