I have an old friend who is a raw-truth trickster. Dan lives on the fringe of civilization, behind an iron-grey thicket of beard that hangs to the middle of his belly. He tells linked strings of bad jokes to little kids and for a living sharpens dull knives; he also prunes old apple trees and polishes cloudy mother-of-pearl buttons from thrift stories until they shine.
Dan has a side business he calls “mail-a-poem.” Pay him fifteen dollars a year, and, when you least expect it, he’ll send you a poem mined from the bottomless shaft of the world’s poetry. Dan prints the poems on blank postcards for all to see. These poems burn holes in my mailbox. Jane Hirshfield is one of Dan’s favorite poets. And of mine. Here’s a card of her poetry that I recently received:
my body pulls towards yours,
desire a long oar dipping
again and again
in this night’s dark rain.
This autumn, at the decline of the year, two startlingly fresh books of Jane Hirshfield’s work came into print: The Lives of the Heart, a book of poems, and Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, a book of essays. I called Dan to read him the poem “Bees.” It begins like this:
In every instant, two gates.
One opens to fragrant paradise, one to hell.
Mostly we go through neither.
“Yeah,” he said, ruminating, chewing the cud of the poem. “Yeah. Poetry does that. It takes you where you have never been before. Or it takes you where you go every day but in a totally new way.”
I agree, especially when it comes to Jane Hirshfield’s work. She sticks to the naked white shank of poetry. She gnaws down to the joints. She is spare and dangerous; she contains worlds. Take, for example, “Abundant Heart”:
Because the pelicans circle and dive, the fish
Because the cows are fat, the rains
Because the tree is heavy with pears, the earth
Because the woman grows thin, the heart
It is no accident that these two volumes were issued together. They belong to each other, like box and cover joining. The Lives of the Heart is “unwordable sweetness,” the sweetness of apples, of figs. I am on my fourth reading of the poems, and with each new reading fresh poems appear. I suspect that they breed at night between the dark covers of the book and step forth at dawn, hissing.
In Nine Gates Hirshfield writes about the mysteries of art, about the flavors of poetry. The essays linger and haunt. Hovering, they descend and become food for the thought and attention of the reader. Like pears, her essays ripen from the inside out, and like apples, from the outside in. In praising Nine Gates, poet Gary Snyder writes, “These expansive, fearless essays are on the basics of…. mind, wit, stalking, silky focus, the eros of knowledge, the steely etiquette of art.”
For Buddhist practitioners, new or seasoned, Hirshfield’s writing is strong dharma teaching since, as she states, “poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being.” The author conveys the mind of poetry through nine luminous essays that investigate such topics as the Inward and Outward Looking of Poetry, the Mind of Indirection, the Myriad Leaves of Words, and Poetry as a Vessel of Remembrance. In the closing essay, the poet speaks of Writing and the Threshold Life. She dramatizes how the paths of the bodhisattva and the writer converge in the clouds and water region of the threshold. The work of the threshold person is “to step into places of seeming barrenness, emptiness, or neglect and bring back an abundance new-coined.”
Immersion in the liminal suffuses Jane Hirshfield’s poetry.
There is a door. It opens. Then it is closed. But a slip of light
stays, like a scrap of unreadable paper left on the floor,
or the one red leaf the snow releases in March.
Again and again the poet surrenders to the generosity and mystery of the living world, to a blue heron sleeping among horses in winter, to three foxes by the edge of a field at twilight, to the pin of a hinge. Unflinching, she knows that “standing squarely in the threshold…. A ruby is no more valuable than a nail.” Both will be needed for the work before us.
Jane Hirshfield’s poetry unsettles. Read her. She mates raw nerve to subtle surprise. Her work is transparent, permeable, both heavy and light. She sustains the gaze and with every syllable reveals the mind of poetry. Follow her into the country where you have never been before and where you go every day.