New look at old friend

poem is on left-hand side of glasses case, just below middle metal bracket


Meeting the Light Completely


by Jane Hirshfield


Even the long-beloved

was once

an unrecognized stranger.


Just so,

the chipped lip

of a blue-glazed cup,

blown field

of a yellow curtain,

might also,

flooding and falling,

ruin your heart.


A table painted with roses.

An empty clothesline.


Each time,

the found world surprises—

that is its nature.


And then

what is said by all lovers:

“What fools we were, not to have seen.”



This poem bears the weightless distinction of being one of the first poems I copied and kept.  After years and years of being passed from drawer to drawer and folder to folder and finally to an envelope in my purse, the paper is crinkled and worn, its print the merest shade darker than faded.  I found it so long ago I can’t remember why I wanted to save it.   Maybe I liked the image of the shabby chic kitchen and wanted to sit at that painted table next to the opened window.  Maybe I liked the sounds:

the chipped lip

of the blue-glazed cup.

Maybe it was the first time I came across a poem, post-college, whose language was vernacular, whose ideas were transparent or seemed to be.   Maybe it spoke to me about the surprises of life, how unimportant things can become important, how every moment is pregnant with possibility and meaning.


How the poem ended up in the Costco optical department is another story.  Because my eyes have gotten increasingly sensitive to sunlight as I’ve aged and I can’t wear contacts all the time, I decided to get prescription sunglasses.  I wanted to “meet the light completely,” so to speak.  Mirrored lenses, I figured, would keep the sun out best.  Big mistake.  Trying on my new insistently reflective sunglasses, I deceived myself that I looked less like a blind lady than Neo in Matrix, and I wore them, nervously checking the rearview mirror at every stoplight, until I picked up my daughter from school.  She cringed at the sight of me.  “Coraline’s parents,” she said, referring to the animated character’s frightening black-button-eyed torturers.


Within the hour I was back at Costco with the offending glasses in my purse and-–egads—a good poem to tape to the glasses display.


I hadn’t realized until I left the poem amongst the glasses how much the poem is about seeing.  All the images are visual, the observations of someone who is looking carefully.  But the poem is also about what can’t be seen.  Meeting the light completely would lead to blindness, at least that’s the strong impression my dad made when he would take us outside to look at a solar eclipse through sunglasses.  We can be blind to the meaning of things as we experience them.  Only with distance or through a glass darkly can we perceive reality.


In the beginning and end of the poem, the act of not seeing amps up romance:

Even the long-beloved

 was once

 an unrecognized stranger.


Essayist Geoff Dyer tells a charming story that illustrates those lines.  He was in a lingerie shop with his girlfriend and while she was in the dressing room, he was briefly enamored of another shopper.  “It wasn’t just that she was beautiful,” he writes, “she transfixed me totally.  My heart went out to her.”   Six months later, he broke up with his girlfriend and later got married.  Months after the wedding, he woke up one morning and “realized, immediately and with absolute certainty, that the woman lying next to me, Rebecca, my wife, was the woman I had seen that day.” He and his wife, with the benefit of extraordinarily detailed diaries, figured out that indeed both of them had been at the lingerie shop at the same time. He had forgotten seeing her but not completely:  “The memory developed as I slept, its colors becoming deeper, more distinct: the ghost of a dream, but permanent, lovely.”

Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail (1998)  by Hollywood Fashion Vault


Meg Ryan built a whole career on that same trope, What fools we were not to have seen.   Consider You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, Addicted to Love, even Sleepless in Seattle in its own way.


All well and good but for the troubling middle section of the poem, the furnished section.  Here the act of seeing doesn’t lead to love.  Instead it can ruin your heart.  Setting aside the nod to William Carlos Williams’ “so much depends/ upon / a red wheel / barrow,” could a yellow curtain ruin your heart?


That would be a good creative writing exercise (write a story where a yellow curtain ruins your heart) because writers work with details and these details, let’s call them objects, carry memories and associations.  Reminding the observer of something else, something painful or beautiful, objects can ruin your heart.


Or is ruin your heart a misanthropic phrase for falling in love?  I don’t think the luminous Hirshfield, a practicing Buddhist, is capable of misanthropy.  So why the brokenness and ruin in the middle of such a romantic poem? The cup is chipped, the curtain flooding and falling.  The arc of the billowing curtain suggests that both in love and then out of love we can fail to see.  When we love we can be blind to faults; when we’re out of love we can be blind to virtues.


(Love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t, my dad used growl before anyone in the house went on a date.  Years later I found the lines the precede his little ditty:

While kissing

at the garden gate,

remember, love is blind

but the neighbors ain’t.)


The opposition of flooding and falling plays out in the images that follow:

A table painted with roses.

  An empty clothesline.


Roses are a traditional symbol of love; the emptiness of the clothesline suggests absence and loss.  Flooding and falling again, and yet, the poem isn’t dark or broken-hearted.


The poem is more complicated than I had realized, and I don’t have a handle on exactly what it means, as if meaning itself slipped out between the white space and the opened window.  All those years I thought I owned it, but I didn’t.  Which is just what the poem predicted:

Each time—

the found world surprises

Jane Hirshfield  by behuman2012


Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years.  She has published seven books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, has helped popularize tanka in the United States, a form which now has a solid place in fifth grade English curriculums.


She’s also an extraordinarily beautiful woman.  Her picture is a visual translation of “Tupelo Honey,” my favorite Van Morrison song.  In my mind it’s Jane Hirshfield on the cover of that album—her curly hair flooded with sunlight and hanging over the white horse who gently leads her through the woods.


Sans mirrored sunglasses of course.



(I can’t mention the Costco optical department without giving a shout-out to the lovely women who work there.  Gentle spirits all, and patient, they handle customers like good fairies dispensing graces.)


Leave a Reply