Jane Hirshfield became a distinct voice in poetry at the turn of the twenty-first century through her sensitive observation of the significance of ordinary details of daily life. Unlike most poets of the Western tradition, Hirshfield tends not to be human centered in her poetry. In other words, her poetry usually does not deal with human relationships, character, or direct interaction. Instead, her poetry objectifies the material of existence and relates matter to the individual or abstracted human nature. A typical poem of Hirshfield’s mature work, for example, will note an utterly mundane object such as a grouping of broken seashells; the concept of rooms, crickets, cucumbers; or the nature of leather, and then proceed to relate it to the human soul. Her poetry, in short, resembles Impressionist still lifes.
Although her work as translator and editor of women’s poetry indicates Hirshfield’s strong feminist nature, little of her poetry is political in the usual sense of direct comment on specific issues. All her work is political, however, in the sense of integrating the stirrings of the heart, one of her favorite images, with the political realities that surround all people.
Undoubtedly, the source for these characteristics of her poetry and for her very concept of poetry as the “magnification of being” derives from her strong Zen Buddhist training. The themes of her poetry and its emphasis on “compassion, on the preexistent unity of subject and object, on nature, on the self-sufficient suchness of being, and on the daunting challenge of accepting transitoriness,” Peter Harris notes, are derived from Buddhist concepts. Hirshfield does not, however, burden her poetry with heavy, overt Zen attitudes. Only occasionally is there direct reference to Buddhism.
Hirshfield considers herself an eclectic poet not tied to any one tradition. Her earliest influences developed from English sonnets and Latin lyrical verse, but early on, she developed an interest in Japanese poetry, first through haiku, and later she was influenced by Aztec, Eskimo, and ancient Indian court poetry. She has mentioned her chief American influences as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Galway Kinnell, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, and Robert Hass.
Jane Hirshfield’s first book of poetry was part of the Quarterly Review of Literature poetry series of 1982. “Alaya” on one hand means “home” but also is, Hirshfield has said, “a Buddhist term meaning ’the consciousness which is the storehouse of experience,’ of memory . . . the place where seed-grain is kept.”
“The Gift” from Alaya points in the direction of Hirshfield’s tendency in her later work to objectify all reality, even the personal: “From how many hands/ your body comes to me,/ and to how many will I pass it on.” Here the body comes, not “you come to me,” and the speaker will pass “it,” the body, on, instead of passing on such things as his memory, his influence, or even his love. The poem is remarkable for its early mature handling of imagery and phrasing. The person addressed, for example, exaggerates “nothing” and leans “into the wind” and is “lost/ but like a flock of geese.” However flocks of geese do not really get lost. The poem ends as many of Hirshfield’s poems do, and as many poems written in writing workshops often do, with a significant metaphor to draw meaning from the experience of this poem: “Slowly now,/ lift the lid of the box:/ there is nothing inside./ I give this to you, love.”
The movement of the poem, then, would ordinarily be seen as a movement from the physical, the body, to the immaterial, the soul, but a Hirshfield poem, perhaps because of the poet’s Zen beliefs, will not distinguish between physical and immaterial. The soul and body are indistinguishable. Despite the objective displacement of the self in “The Gift,” however, much of Hirshfield’s early poetry maintains a personal point of view, both in Alaya and in her next book.
Of Gravity and Angels
Jane Hirshfield’s second book of poetry, Of Gravity and Angels, continues to demonstrate her mastery of language, yet nearly half of the poems in this volume include the pronoun “I.” For most of the poems, the self remains integral to the text.
At her public readings and in her interviews, the poet talks frequently of her love for horses and her use of horses in her poems. “After Work” is a typical Hirshfield horse poem. The poem takes a straightforward description of a habitual moment in her life, the after-work feeding of the horses, and transforms the experience into meaning:
I stop the car along the pasture edge, gather up bags of corncobs from the back, and get out. Two whistles, one for each, and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
The horses come and eagerly devour corncobs brought by the speaker. However, despite the personal nature of this ordinary experience, Hirshfield objectifies it. The horses do not “just” come. They come “conjured out of sleep”; they come with “each small noise and scent/ heavy with earth, simple beyond communion.”
One of the more memorable poems from Of Gravity and Angels is “Dialogue,” which begins: “A friend says,/ ’I’m always practicing to be an old woman.’” Another friend considers...
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