Back in January, I received the Winter selections from the Poetry Book Society. This time, instead of reading them slowly, or even just shelving them unread for reading at some unspecified later date, I decided to read them all straight through, starting with the Choice, then continuing with the Recommendations in alphabetical order by author's last name:
Tiffany Atkinson, Kink and Particle (Seren)
Cynthia Fuller, Jack's Letters Home (Flambard)
I also decided to conclude with Polley's first book, The Brink, which was a Choice that I had earlier shelved without reading.
As I began Hirshfield's book, I quickly discovered how I wanted to proceed: read fast; pay attention; wait for the poems to slow me down. And the book's fifth poem stopped me in my tracks:
HOPE: AN ASSAY
At 79 my friend says, “I feel differently now.
I thought we could change, now I am not so sure.
We are chimpanzees.
Chimpanzees fighting. I begin to lose my old hope.”
How hard he still fights, I think,
still struggling with the nature of human nature, his own and others’.
And I, who have always despaired of change,
see him change and grow hopeful.
I've always liked paradoxes, and this is a finely expressed one. Ever since I read Paul de Man's "The Rhetoric of Temporality," with its analysis of Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal," I have also liked poems with two quatrains, with a turn between them, as between the octet and the sestet, but with more balance between the thesis and the antithesis than in a sonnet. I like them rhymed best of all, these poems in a form without a name (as far as I know), though strict form is otherwise not necessary (cf. Paul Muldoon's "Whitethorns"). Here, though, the back-and-forth of the paradox and the perspectives makes the poem well worth stopping and thinking about.
The next poem was "To Judgment: An Assay," but I read on. Still, a few pages later, I did come to lines, in the conclusion of another "assay," "Sky: An Assay," that slowed me down because of their connection to the change and stasis addressed in "Hope":
And so we look right past sky, by it, through it,
to what also is moody and alters—
erosive mountains, eclipsable moons, stars distinct but death-bound.
The issues of the earlier "assay" reappear here in a new form, and again I enjoyed the paradoxes: mountains, moons, and stars are often considered unalterable, but Hirshfield's poem identifies even them as malleable, like the friend and the speaker in "Hope."
Now I had something besides individual poems to look for; I had themes, and they began popping up—sometimes in even more "assays," but also in poems that did not have that "genre" in the title:
What would it be
to take up no position,
to lie on this earth at rest, relieved of proof or charge?
we call the mountain in the lake,
whose existence resides in neither stone nor water.
("Articulation: An Assay")
The dream, like the dog, went on, travelled elsewhere.
Passed by the moment when everything might have been changed.
Passed by the moment of knowing I wanted everything changed.
("Transcendence: An Assay")
Not ungraspable hope, not the consolation of stories.
Only the reminder that there is exception.
All this, and I was only on page 24 of a 95-page book! If I still did serious scholarship, I'd have begun collecting material for an essay (or perhaps an "assay").
But Hirshfield still managed to slow me down in other ways, too, as in "Poe: An Assay":
His stories were not intended for the canine heart that howls inside us,
though he fed it the tidbits it needed to stay near.
"Vilnius" made me stop because I had recently written my essay on Robert Frost's "The Mountain"; Hirshfield's poem begins with guidebooks on a table, then shifts gears:
Behind them—sometimes behind thick fog—the mountain.
If you lived high up on the mountain,
I find myself thinking, what you would see is
More of everything else, but not the mountain.
Hirshfield can also be quite funny, as in a prose "assay" about the word "of":
"... though one thing also connects to another through 'and,' this is not the same. Consider: 'Science and elephants.' 'The science of elephants.' 'The elephants of science.'"
It's easy and fun to just go on quoting good bits:
Yet your work requires
both transience and transformation:
night changes to day, snow to rain, the shoulder of the living pig to meat.
And so we say 'today', 'tomorrow'.
But from yesterday, like us, you have vanished.
("'To': An Assay")
After transforms into others.
'And'—that strong rock—stays standing.
("'And': An Assay")
These passages, which I underlined while reading, both develop the themes of "Hope" and other poems in the book and are simply quotable on their own terms. Hirshfield proves again and again to be a great fashioner of aphoristic, thought-provoking lines.
But I wasn't just slowing down to underline passages; I also found myself stopping at several other superb poems. The following poem brought to mind "Borges and I," by Jorge Luis Borges, which I have long treasured:
More and more I have come to wonder
about this stranger—
woman whose sweaters and coats resemble my own,
whose taste in breads and coffee
resembles my own,
who sleeps when I sleep, wakens when I awaken.
whose verb-form takes the felicitous s at its close,
what happens is simply what happens.
I fret the most slender of errors—
the name forgotten, the borrowed book unreturned—
but never have found her holding a teacup
or coin between her fingers
as if its substance and purpose were something she did not comprehend.
How self-assured she seems,
who decides nothing,
whose insomnia is to my own what the shadow of a leaf is to a leaf.
I am tired, but she is not tired.
I am wordless;
she, who has never spoken a word of her own,
is full of thoughts as precise and impassioned
as the yellow and black exchanges of a wasp's striped body.
For a long time I thought her imposter.
her jokes, even her puns, are only too subtle for me to follow.
And so we go on, mostly ignoring each other,
though what I cook, she eats with seeming gusto,
and letters intended for her alone I open with a curious ease,
as if I, not she, were the long-accomplished thief.
Or, as Hirshfield puts it in "I Imagine Myself in Time," two pages later:
And that other self, who watches me from the distance of decades,
what will she say?
While rereading those lines, I was reminded of the Robert Creeley poem that has always been my favorite, which, coincidentally, is, like Hirshfield's book, called "After":
I'll not write again
things a young man
thinks, not the words
of that feeling.
There is no world
except felt, no
one there but
must be here also.
If that time was
echoing, a vindication
apparent, if flesh
and bone coincided—
let the body be.
See faces float
over the horizon let
the day end.
But back to Hirshfield. If you have read this far, and now that I have written this far, it is clear that this I was really impressed by this book. In fact, I had pretty much forgotten how impressed I had been; now, as I have finally found the time to type up my thoughts about the PBS Winter books, I am even more impressed by the book. Instead of going on even further, I'll close my comments on Hirshfield with two links to poems ("To Opinion" — the phrase "An Assay" is not in the book version — and "Bad Year") and two more quotations:
Like the radio heard while travelling in a foreign country—
you know that something important has happened, but not what.
And from "Letter to C." (C. is Czeslaw Milosz):
This did not keep you from forming your theory—
Whitman's poetry as one cause of the First World War.
Incomprehensible to Americans, obvious to a Lithuanian Pole.
Some readers of this blog (if they have read this far) might well have heard me tell the story about how Milosz presented this theory to a friend of mine, a graduate student then working on a dissertation on Whitman. How my friend enjoyed telling that story (a great storyteller telling a story about another great storyteller).
One last point about After: shortly after I read it, I came across the Poetry Foundation's December list of best-selling poetry books in the U.S. After was number 12 on the list at the time; I just checked the latest list (April 2007), but it is no longer on the list. I was surprised to see Hirshfield selling so well, but in retrospect, I understand her popularity: her work drew me in and gave me a great deal to think about (as the length of my comments on her book shows).