These Also Once under MoonlightPart of what I love about that is it takes on time and mortality—common poetic themes—at new, larger level: the rise and fall of species, including our own. That last line, far from debasing humanity, links us to part of something even greater. It is not that humans are doomed: we are transitory; being an animal, one of many, is suddenly reassuring. We are tiny, yet connected. After that, I was predisposed to like all of Hirshfield’s poems. Sometimes she is more straightforward:
with two small hind-limbs
and a pelvic girdle.
hunting in packs like dogs.
Others whose scaly plates
thistle to feathers.
Mammals sleekening, ottering,
back towards the waters.
Ours, too, a transitional species,
what is later, always, called monstrous—
no longer one thing, not yet another.
Fossils greeting fossils,
Walking, sleeping, waking, wanting to live.
Nuzzling our young wildly, as they did.
The PromiseBut poems like this—patterned, forthright, allegorical—are not typical Hirshfield; she is usually more guarded and complex. Take instead:
Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
their heads lower.
Stay, I said to the spider
embarrassed for me and itself.
Stay, I said to my body.
It sat like a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.
Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossilized escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.
Stay, I said to my loves.
“Distance Makes Clean”
Best when gods changed
into rag and sandal,
knocked, asked entrance.
Such test is simple, can be passed or failed.
The softest bed,
The meat unstinting.
But when from far and mountain
they would ask
and for amusement, “What are mortals?”
even the flocking creatures came to tremble, cattle, sheep.
the distant slaughters, like toy armies in the hands of boys.
It so happens that my daughter, noticing me reading, asked me to read a poem, and I was on this one. I read it, and tried to explain it (it shouldn’t be too far off for her—she likes the Odyssey); I found it easy to understand and difficult to explain, which is a quality often found in a good poem.
Things I like about this poem:
1) It had focus; much lyric poetry can lose its focus.
2) Elision—how she leaves out unnecessary words even if they have a grammatical function (too much of this, by an unskilled author, would drive me crazy).
3) Phrases that make no sense syntactically yet perfect sense intuitively: “But when from far and mountain…”
One more tonight, because I’m a sucker for cool traditional forms: a haibun (discussed in an earlier post)…
Haibun: a Mountain Rowboat
Go for a walk on the mountain. The trail, up many wooden stairs, passes some houses. In front of one, an old man is building a boat. All summer I have watched this mountain rowboat. Like a horse in its stall, patiently waiting for its evening hay, it rests on its wooden cradle. Finally, today, it is being painted: a clear Baltic blue. Horses dream. You can see this move through their ears. But the hopes of an old man spill, as waking life does, through the hands.
By the way, Jane Hirshfield is coming here to Portland this Tuesday, September 13, to Powell’s Books.amid summer trees
blue boat high on a mountain
its paint scent drying