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Friday, May 05, 2006

Jane Hirshfield in Sacramento at Sutter Health Center


photo courtesy of Richard Hansen

photo courtesy of Indigo Moor

Jane Hirshfield arrived in Sacramento for an evening reading at the Sutter Cancer Center complete with the same haircut she has been sporting since the age of 14. One might imagine her with curls or a bob; then again, one might not. To meditate on this “other Jane” would be to open up far too great a hole in the day.

Sacramento poet laureate Julia Connor kicked off the reading by providing a heartfelt introduction to Jane Hirshfield where she recounted the meaningful ways Hirshfield’s poetry informs Hirshfield’s readers. In particular, stealing language she discovered from a business report, she noted, “Jane Hirshfield lights her poems.” Connor then went further to provide an insight into Hirshfield’s project in writing poems. Quoting from Hirshfield, she said, “The poem doesn’t just come out of attentiveness; it creates it.” Connor remarked to the other writers in the group, “When you feel powerless, say that to yourself.” Connor characterized Hirshfield’s new book After as a “book about believing” and invoked secret religions where other members would know each other by a wink or a smile. This, Connor suggested, is how readers come to know Hirshfield’s work.

Jane Hirshfield took the stage set off by two lamps, the one to the left set high, the one to the right set lower to the ground. The staggered lamps announced her presence as if she were arriving through a tunnel of light. She announced her imagined layout for the evening but invited any “anarchists” to disrupt these tidy plans by asking questions or bellowing, Robert Bly-style, “Read it again, Jane”

Hirshfield announced that the theme running through the evening would be “the navigation and acceptance of difficulty,” and with that she recited the first poem of the evening, a short, somewhat mystical poem by Izumi Shikibu, the 10th Century Japanese writer.

although the wind
blows terribly here
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house


Hirshfield admitted that she didn’t quite know what the poem was driving at the first time she read it, but that it was illuminated for her. She pointed out that moonlight was associated with enlightenment and that a house was generally seen as a figure of the self. This knowledge added a richness to her reading, but she gathered that the closing down of one’s self to difficulty and more specifically grief would, in turn, also close one down from greater understanding represented in the poem by the moonlight leaking through.

"In the Room with 5 People, 6 Griefs" dovetailed nicely with Shikibu’s poem about the hidden rewards of grief. In this poem Hirshfield talked about the importance and necessity of breaking through the polite silence which sometimes can permeate a room.

"For What Binds Us," an older poem from 1982, the only older poem which she still is comfortable reading, was the next offering. Upon the utterance of the last line, "how the black cord makes of them a single fabric that nothing can tear or mend." a faint but audible chorus of sighs rose above the murmurs of the air conditioning.

”The Weighing" from October Palace followed and similarly produced a little shudder throughout the room, especially the last line about giving all of one’s strength and then a little more.

”The Envoy," which Robert Bly called one of the greatest poems written in the last 50 years, reminded that “There are openings in our lives of which we know nothing." The poem speaks to the notion of experiencing some ineffable life force pushing through a person, a force, which is ultimately uncontainable and which repeatedly leaves men and women at its mercy.

"Da Capo" provided a recipe in the middle of the poem, a recipe that if followed would render the result inedible. Hirshfield related how a friend of hers had tried to “follow” the recipe in the poem only to discover what a wretched concoction it had instructed her to create.

"Optimism" was Hirshfield’s paean to something she called “evolutionary pacifism,” where a blind but true intelligence links to a litany of living creatures and lives in the earth that cannot be taken back.

This was the end of the preliminary "greatest hits" part of the evening. At this point Hirshfield delved into her new book After

The first piece from After was "Theology." The poem was about flies that gather at the window, then inhabit another dimension. This was compared to the movement of a dog to a window. Then the speaker is back to talking about the flies again. The last part of the poem was about a sick dog crawling under the house to die and its owner crawling under the house and refusing to let the dog die. At the end of the poem, the reader learns that the dog has survived. The final image is a firefly blinking outside the window that everyone hurries to believe.

"Pyracantha and Plum" from the Atlantic was next up. In it Hirshfield related the experience of looking out hard at the world, in this case, her garden. In this respect she echoed Julia Connor’s comment at the outset about how the poem creates its own attentiveness. Hirshfield went further to claim, "Art makes attentiveness, it makes connectedness, it instructs in the capacities of being."

"Dog and Bear" was the next piece in a familiar pattern for Hirshfield. Fairly often she employs two items in the title and chronicles the interaction between them (see "Pyracantha and Plum" above) instead of settling on one-word titles that explore only one item in a fixed frame. In "Dog and Bear" a white dog and a bear meet, but the reader learns the bear is actually "not there." From there Hirshfield turns to meditating on "something lost, missing in any weather." At the end of the poem the missing bear is held at bay by the dog. The substantial holds off that which is longed for and missed.

Hirshfield prefaced "Possibility: An Assay" by explaining how she has lived in the same house since 1984 [one wonders if she still gets "opportunities" to refinance in the mail every day] but that she hadn’t noticed a particular phenomenon in the house until recently. Her window faces west. The neighbor’s window faces east. Early in the morning she noticed she could see the reflection of the dawn in the neighbor’s window. This is what inspired the setting for this poem that concluded with

this moment simply looking elsewhere,
like a woman who has wept for weeks who realizes
that she is also hungry


In "Vilnius" Hirshfield began to gesture towards the next subtheme for the evening, that of her friendship with renowned poet Czeslaw Milosz. This piece only hints at this relationship in that the title refers to the capital of Lithuania where Milosz was born. It was inspired by plans for a trip that she never took. The beginning of the poem has the speaker looking at tour books of St. Petersburg, Vilnius and Vienna, and the reflection on this trip that never materialized leads the speaker at the end of the poem to state, "If you lived higher up on the mountain, you’d see more of everything else, but not the mountain"

Hirshfield revealed that Paul Muldoon had chosen "Burlap Sack" for the recent Best American Poetry collection. The poem is yet another container for grief and a meditation for how the self is impinged on by grief. At one point, the speaker asserts, "To think that the grief is self is error." The speaker places the construction of subjectivity outside of task when it states, "The self is not the builder, the miner, the driver." The gist of the poem is that the self is a container for grief, perhaps a porous container. Later in the evening during the question and answer period she gave a wonderful metaphor for how this process could be reflected on. Grief is like a pebble thrown into a body of water. The surface of that water produces ripples, but the pebble is still there buried beneath the the water that has gone on to cover it up.

In ”The Heat of Autumn" reflects on a moment when a man with cancer has announced his intention to live with his lover and leave his wife. The speaker follows the wife’s dutiful act of sorting the man’s things for this next step and remarks, surprisingly, on the pleasure that will follow.

The next set of pieces culled from a section of the book Hirshfield entitled "Pebbles" acted almost like koans. Hirshfield described them as riddles or jokes that must be internalized by the reader in order to close the loop of the meaning contained within them that is constructed by the writer for the reader to finish on his/her own time. The first piece was "After Degas” where the speaker reflects on whether a woman’s act of shaving her legs would serve to please a man more. It was followed by "Ecstasy Czechoslovakia, 1933," "Maple," "Lemon," and "The Story" where the speaker began with a portion of dialog, "Do you ever . . . I lied, said I did" which leads to the final revelation that the speaker, I, "promised myself to a story’s hands."

Hirshfield admitted that "Tool Use in Animals" was inspired by the molecular biophysicist (and other scientific disciplines) crowd that she must negotiate with respect to her partner. In it, birds were calling "human, human," a reminder that communication with nature always goes both ways.

"Global Warming" was a short but interesting piece informed by history. The poem started off with Captain James Cook arriving on the shores of Australia. The poem reports how the natives fished and were unable to fear that which was too large to be comprehended. The parallel to global warming was immediately apparent. During the question and answer period Hirshfield revealed that she was always struck by the story of Cook’s first encounter with the aboriginal peoples of Australia. She felt there was an important story there, but she admitted it needed another point of connection to ramify the piece.

It was at this point where Chip Spann, the evening’s organizer, jokingly mimicked Robert Bly by intoning, "Read it again, Jane."

"The Bell Zygmunt" was written due to a request from Csezlaw Milosz to have Hirshfield write a poem for his wife upon her unexpected passing. The speaker reflects on the interests of Milosz’s wife and uses the Zygmunt Bell in Krakow as a touchstone from which the rest of the poem resonates. The bell’s many purposes parallel the many purposes of a person. At the end of the poem, the speaker (after negotiating a death bed scene) reflects that the bell can mean either "great joy" or that "the city is burning, come."

The final piece before the question and answer period was "It Was Like This, You Were Happy". It was an elegy for someone, presumably Milosz (who died at the age of 93 on Aug. 14, 2004), but not necessarily. The poem is a reminder that any life, presumably even one as complex and rich as Milosz’s can be boiled down to a few essential feelings and a few essential passions (Note: in a Hirshfield poem, these passions always seem to be delivered in terms of desires for food. Methinks she doth have an obsession with the morsel.)

The question and answer period followed. The first question was directed to Hirshfield about her experience and thoughts regarding the topic of anarchism. She provided a response that reflected a quieter, long-term anarchism. She invoked Chekhov, who, in speaking about his brother who was a slave in Russia, said that "we must eliminate the slave that is left within us." She went further to quote Cavafy, "But perhaps it doesn’t matter what I have to say, sometime after me, there will be someone who will speak freely." In explaining these quotes, Hirshfield warned that “one can’t be simple, that’s not the answer." By "simple" she was referring directly to the simplicity of violence. She invoked the title of an older poem of hers, "Those Who Cannot Act" and allied herself with those whose lives have been turned over to circumstance, whose option to act in a discerning way has been revoked. "These people," Hirshfield solemnly admitted, "have broken my heart all my life—so little choice." Segueing from this quote, she concluded her response to this first question by invoking Aeschylus, "Those who act will suffer, will suffer the truth.”"

Julia Connor then asked about Hirshfield’s writing habits and asked her to read the poem, "Letter to C.," the long poem dedicated to one of her spiritual mentors, Czeslaw Milosz. Hirshfield responded by talking about how the time of day she writes has changed over the years, and she lamented that recently had to give up late afternoons for mornings because of a neighbor whose rock band practices in the late afternoons. Even though she didn’t consider herself a morning person, she put forth that recently it was the morning where "an open space lay, [and] my muse moved into it." It is hardly surprising that Hirshfield does not tolerate distraction. Her poems evoke a laser-like intensity of concentration. They are intense meditations. She describes her process as "opening an interior invitation, a process similar to zen meditation, but not wordless." She said she also asks herself whether there is something in her that wants to speak but that one should not be discouraged if that immediate voice doesn't arrive routinely. She admitted that often she does not experience any urgency to say something when she sits down to write. At those times she waits and is patient. When it doesn’t arrive, she doesn’t write. She said she doesn't necessarily write every day. In order to clarify this notion of feeling compelled to write but not willing the compulsion, she invoked the metaphor of juggling where one doesn’t want to sense the balls, just tune in the rhythm and the motion. The balls are seemingly a prop for discovering that rhythm. The deep process of writing for Hirshfield is informed by discovery, discovering the feeling of the shapely, the surprise that couldn’t have been arrived at any other way besides poetry. She concluded her response by offering another aphorism, "When the horse wants to move, it will. Don’t whip it."

The next questioner asked her to repeat the seven words which, to Hirshfield, were the summary of Buddhist philosophy. These seven words were: "Everything changes. Everything’s connected, pay attention." She went on to say that one could perhaps distill the essence of this further by just looking at the last two words—pay attention.

The following question was about how Hirshfield arrives at her images. The questioner wanted to know whether they were received at the time of witnessing an event in her life or whether they arose from her desk time and emerged later. Though the answer to this question was not direct, it seemed Hirshfield wanted to acknowledge both when she said something to the effect of "life is a complication of an understanding of the metaphorical." In this she seemed to say that the experiences in life that are cherished, made deeper, more profound, are the ones that require reflection in order to make them more complex. In this, she seemed to state that one has to be there and pay attention, but one has let the image linger inside of oneself and ferment. With regard to the first part of the equation, Hirshfield claimed that one can train oneself to be alert. One way to do this would be to write 100 haikus. This, she affirmed, would change one’s relationship with image. Another possibility might be to arbitrarily point at things in the room, try to inhabit their space and then move to illumination (which is a kind of poem very reminiscent of Bly’s object poems).

The final questioner asked Hirshfield about her perception of the difference between her long poems and her short poems. Hirshfield pointed out that in the West there was a predilection for the long poem, the symphonic structure, the epic poem where the poem seeks a complicated passage from one thing to the next. She stated that little poems are underrated in the West. She compared them to light coming through a pinhole. Then she gave an example of another recent koan-like "pebble" that she is tentatively titling “Mouse and Mountain.”

Both move, only one more slowly

The evening was capped off with Hirshfields reading of "Letter to C.", her elegy and homage to Czeslaw Milosz whose life she referred to in the poem as a “fight to the last with those who narrow the mind.” The last two lines, the first in Sanskrit and then its English translation, closed out the evening, "Gone now, released one, the far past returning, suffer no more."

Thus ended an evening dedicated to the navigation and acceptance of difficulty as it is often mediated by the experience of grief.

2 comments:

robotmadder said...

When she introducted "Di Cappo", I remember her saying the person who tried following the recipe told her it didn't turn out too well, but I didn't hear her say or imply it was a "wretched concoction"--maybe I'm not remembering right. She recommended the first Greens cookbook.

It was a truly wonderful event, especially for free, and I feel very lucky to have seen JH read.

Tim Kahl said...

In the introduction to "Da Capo" [did the page I referenced get it wrong too?] she did imply a certain wretchedness, but I think you may have more accurately remembered that this was a reference to the friend's specific rendering of the dish rather than the dish itself. I'm not a "food guy," so I may have been half-listening or scrambling to process something else. At readings there are a thousand distractions, many from the chatter of the mind (as I'm sure you can attest to).