Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Lives of the Heart by Jane Hirshfield

I had never read anything by Jane Hirshfield, but she did carry a recommendation from a good friend. In addition to The Lives of the Heart, Hirshfield has written about eight books of poetry, some essays, and edited, or contributed to, other collections.

My usual custom when opening a book of poetry by an author I do not know is to read through rather quickly, sometimes skipping poems with openings I did not care to finish. Then, I read a second time – slowly -- thinking, digesting, marking a few poems for a third or fourth read.

That plan did not work out so well this time. I found myself, on the first read, digging into some of these thought-provoking, intelligent, and wonderfully crafted poems.

For example, “Mele in Gabbia” is one of my favorites from this collection:

The pastry / is dusted with sugar. / The slices of apple inside, / just sour enough. // The name, / “apples in a cage.” // I eat them / in this good place -- / the pastry warm, the linen / impeccably white -- / and consider. // (65)

Like many of the poems this one has a rather opened ended finish. This device, I believe, allows me to immerse myself in the scene, and then “consider” for myself what passes through the mind. When I read this one for the first time, memories flooded over me of when I was a child and sat at the breakfast table. My Dad would pluck a jelly donut from the plate, point to the tiny spot of jelly on one side, shake his head no, and bite into the other side. He explained, the idea is not to get all the jelly at once, but also not to let it all escape. To this day, I bite into a jelly donut on the side, and until I read this poem, I had forgotten the incident.

Some of the poems have a Zen-like quality. “Reading Chinese Poetry Before Dawn” is another favorite:

Sleepless again, / I get up. / A cold rain / beats at the windows. / Holding my coffee, / I ponder Tu Fu’s / overturned wine glass. / At his window, snow, / twelve hundred years fallen; / under his hand, / black ink not yet dry. / “Letters are Useless.” / The poet is old, alone, / his woodstove is empty. / The fame of centuries / casts off no heat. / In his verse, I know, / is a discipline / lost to translation; / here, only the blizzard remains. // (83)

Again, one easily slips into other times and other places. In this poem, I recall many days of my youth – pre-Texas! – of blizzards roaring down the street, covering the cars, closing the schools, and stopping trolleys and buses from carrying my father to work. This poem also has that quiet, sparse feeling of a Chinese poem, or a painting of a farmer laboring in the snow to tend his herd.

One last short poem I also found thought-provoking is “Wine Grapes for Breakfast”:

Sweet / at first / on the tongue, / hours later / the red grapes / still sting, / as if trying / to tell me something -- / what the hook / tells the fish / perhaps, / or the wand / or stick hears / before conductor / or mule driver / brings it down. // (66)

I have to end now, because I want to read this collection again. 5 stars

--Chiron, 8/22/12

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