Line 1 The first line of “Three Times My Life Has Opened” is, obviously, a repetition of the title. But a reader should never be too quick to judge which came first. Perhaps after the poem was written, Hirshfield decided just to call it by its first line. The order makes no difference in interpreting the poem, for this line begs two questions, regardless of how the work got its name: what does the poet mean when she says her life has “opened,” and what or when are the “three times” that it happened?
Line 2 The second line of the poem sets the precedent for the poet’s description of the times she claims her life has opened. She does not reveal when the events occur, but rather what the circumstances are that surround each one—more like where it happens than when. Line 2 implies a sad or desolate time, one in which the poet’s life experiences “darkness and rain.” Keep in mind that the word “opened” indicates a willingness to receive something. The connotation would have been much different if Hirshfield had said her life fell into, or was forced into, certain situations. Therefore, even though darkness and rain do not seem like anything she would want to welcome into her life, one must wait to see how this episode plays out with the next two openings before reaching that conclusion.
Lines 3–4 These lines describe the second time the poet’s life opened, and it seems to reveal a better time than the first. A specific meaning may not be any clearer here, but mentioning “the act of love” implies a moment of contentment, if not blissfulness. The allusion in these lines is to something physical, or natural, for “what the body carries within it” may be water or blood or any other liquid or solid that makes up the human body. But these items do not sound very poetic or like something the body “starts to remember” because the physical makeup of it is not likely to be forgotten. So what the body contains and recalls is open to speculation. Perhaps this second event is a bridge between the dreary darkness of the previous one and the warm brightness of the one to come. Regardless of the specifics, the poet effectively creates a tie-in for the physical being to the physicality of nature described at the end of the work.
Line 5 The third and final opening is “to the fire that holds all,” and, again, this image could have either positive or negative connotations. The first inclination may be to imagine something horrific, as opening one’s life to flames and burning sounds terribly painful, if not deadly. But fire is also a metaphor for passion and warmth, as well as for mental alertness and enlightenment. Since this fire “holds all,” the positive connotation appears to be the most likely intended.
Lines 6–7 These lines are two of the most concrete in the poem, and yet they reveal the core of the poet’s message. Although the three events surrounding her life’s opening seem to be strikingly different in content—from darkness and rain to lovemaking to fire—Hirshfield claims, “These three were not different.” If the reader finds this puzzling, not to worry, for the poet admits, “You will recognize what I am saying or you will not.” That may take the reader off the hook, but it does something more as well. In her article “Poetry and the Mind of Indirection,” from her book Nine Gates, Hirshfield asks, “Why do circuitousness and indirection play so great a role in...
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poetic thought?” The answer she provides is that “only when looked at from a place of asideness and exile does the life of the world step fully forward.” So looking at something head-on or trying to analyze something in a straightforward manner usually proves futile. If the reader does not “recognize” what the poet is saying, it is only because he or she wants to bring direction to what is unashamedly indirect.
Lines 8–9 Whereas the previous two lines may be the most lacking in visual imagery, these two virtually bask in it. The setting is late autumn when the bright, colorful leaves of a maple tree are dropping rapidly, foreshadowing the onset of winter. The tree seems to be eager for the new season, for it acts “like a woman in love with winter,” who readily disrobes in anticipation of the pleasure it will bring. The sensuousness of these lines draws the reader back to lines 3 and 4, in which the human body and the “act of love” are also the prevalent images. Lines 8 and 9 juxtaposed against lines 6 and 7 make for a stunning contrast between the abstract and the concrete. They seem to imply that no matter what intellectual musings one may entertain, everything always comes back to the visible and the tangible.
Line 10 The “we” in this line refers to the poet and the reader, just as the “You” in line 7 is a direct address to the reader. Line 10 reflects a sentiment similar to that in line 6, but now there is no difference “in what we know.” The word “Neither” is a direct reference back to line 6, for the two could easily be put together to read: “These three were not different, neither are we different in what we know.” Hirshfield is adamant in assuring the reader of an overall human sameness, even though some people appear to have a greater understanding and a knack for unraveling the mysteries of the human mind.
Lines 11–12 These lines present a bit of their own mystery with the somewhat cryptic, somber description of a door simply existing, then opening, and then closing. Perhaps the door is like life, sometimes opening to various experiences and other times closed up, not showing what is going on inside. But, here, a “slip of light / stays” even after the door closes, implying a defiance of total darkness and unenlightenment. The bit of light shining on the floor is “like a scrap of unreadable paper” lying there, the key word being “unreadable.” The one who sees it may not be able to understand what it says, but its presence signifies the triumph of light over darkness, comprehension over obscurity.
Line 13 The final line of the poem continues the idea presented in lines 11 and 12, and it also returns to the rich imagery of lines 8 and 9. The slip of light that is compared to a scrap of paper is now compared to “one red leaf” from the maple tree mentioned earlier, which manages to survive winter with its color intact. Come spring, the snow melts and “releases” the leaf, and its presence, like the light that remains, implies the same triumph.