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BASALT MAGAZINE September 13, 2011
Reviewed by James Crews
In her now-classic book of essays on the craft of poetry, Nine Gates, Jane Hirshfield writes, “Solitude, whether endured or embraced is a necessary gateway to original thought: only a writer who fears neither abandonment nor self-presence can write without distortion.” As one might expect from a longtime student of zen, Hirshfield’s latest collection, Come, Thief, rings with a fearless clarity and an attention to language that never wavers. She’s always pursued both depth and simplicity in her previous volumes, which include Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001) and After (2006), and though the poems of Come, Thief again ask for our patience, they repay it more than ever with work that marries the abstract with the concrete: “Let reason flow like water around a stone, the stone remains,” she tells us in one of her koan-like lines, suggesting “reason” has little place in her work and in our lives. It’s the mystery she’s after.
Hirshfield is thus most compelled by the spaces between things, the unexpected gaps between thoughts or the too-often unacknowledged world beneath the world in which we live. “Under each station of the real/another glimmers,” she says in “If Truth Is the Lure, Humans Are the Fishes,” and we can easily agree with both first line and title, for it is, after all, the pursuit of truth and beauty that often brings us to poetry in the first place. Always peering beneath “the stations of the real,” she is never didactic, confessing instead: “I make these words for what they can’t replace.” Seeking to honor the ineffable because she has no choice, she also owns up to the failures inherent in any attempt to capture the truth, since words can never actually “replace” the actual things they do their best to describe.
Speaking of that slimmest window between decision and action, she says:
The thorax of an ant is not as narrow.
The green coat on old copper weighs more.
Yet something slips through it—
sets out in the new direction, for other lands.
The best writers linger over every word, each line break and segue from image to image; Hirshfield is clearly one of our most precise, careful poets. And Come, Thief, with its flawless construction, is the kind of book that can inhabit you, can even begin to color how you see the particulars of the world (“Coffee cups, olives, cheeses,/ hunger, sorrow, fears”). These poems wear a kind of detached delight on their sleeves. “So it was,” Hirshfield tells us in “First Light Edging Cirrus”:
when love slipped inside us.
It looked out face to face in every direction.
Then it was inside the tree, the rock, the cloud.
The speaker seems to have fallen in love again, but it is the spiritual life she mostly interrogates here—that ephemeral “thing” that has filled us, she suggests, since the beginning. And because Hirshfield is just as concerned with human emotion as she is with the transitory, Come, Thief never veers too far toward the sentimental or facile. It is with humor and seriousness both that the poet makes use of the temporariness she sees in almost everything. “Perishable, It Said” finds its speaker looking:
now at the back of each hand,
now inside the knees,
now turning over each foot to look at the sole.
Then at the leaves of the young tomato plants,
then at the arguing jays . . .
Searching for the “date to be used by,” she’s also rebelling against the way we often take note of ruin and approach the idea of death: we look first outside of ourselves. This speaker, however, begins by examining the places on her own body as if for the telltale ink stamped there, for some sign when she might “expire.” The last stanza thus registers the surprise we find so often throughout this book:
How suddenly then
the strange happiness took me,
like a man with strong hands and strong mouth
inside that hour with its perishing perfumes and clashings.
As Hirshfield well knows, it is in moments of physical passion and connection that we are most vulnerable, “perishable,” most keenly aware of our own mortality, even as the body wants to keep those “strong hands and strong mouth” forever alive. Though she writes with assuredness, the impetus of her work is really a deep ambivalence, the expression of uncertainty and groundlessness, which are of course hallmarks of many Buddhist teachings. Maybe her “strange happiness” at observing the coming and going of things makes this book such a slow pleasure. “Sheep” manages, for instance, to be both devastating and heartening, a delicate balance:
A black-faced sheep
looks back out at you as you pass
and your heart is startled
as if by the shadow
of someone once loved.
Neither comforted by this
nor made lonely.
In so many places too, she seems to be talking about her own work. Referring to the futility of translation (and thereby of writing) as well as the uselessness of clinging to anything, she asks us:
But what is the point of preserving the bell
if to do so it must be filled with concrete or wax?
A body prepared for travel but not for singing.
What is the point of “preserving” a body or that body’s perceptions? Hirshfield is constantly acknowledging the impossibility of immortality even as her poems seem to seek it.
Ultimately, one cannot help but admire a poet whose honest work asks us to pause and think, to marvel at the small delights of this world, while also questioning the nature of its existence. Come, Thief—though heady—is an invitation, “the path to the doorway,” as she puts it in the title poem, even if we must unlock that door ourselves. At each turn in this exquisite book, it’s worth it.
Causes Jane Hirshfield Supports
International Campaign for Tibet