by Jane Hirshfield
Day after quiet day passes.
I speak to no one besides the dog.
I murmur much I would not otherwise say.
We make plans
then break them on a moment’s whim.
though sometimes bringing
to my attention a small blue ball.
Passing the fig tree
I see it is
suddenly huge with green fruit,
which may ripen or not.
Near the gate,
I stop to watch
the sugar ants climb the top bar
and cross at the latch,
as they have now in summer for years.
In this way I study my life.
I think today,
like a dusty glass vase.
A little water,
a few flowers would be good,
but do nothing. Love is far away.
Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.
If a friend told you her life was a dusty glass vase you might ask what’s going on, give her a consoling hug and pass on the number of a good therapist. Somehow Jane Hirshfield says the very same thing and she sounds . . . self-satisfied? Pleased? Zen at the very least. That’s the Hirshfield magic. Her meditative air fills her poems, dark though they may be, with light.
Take another look at that dusty glass vase. Yes, it’s empty, un-filled, unused for some time. But not depressing. An empty vase is rich with possibility and ready for beauty. Ready for a little water and a few flowers.
I think;/but do nothing the speaker says. Around her is a world of activity. The dog pushes the ball to her feet, the fig tree bursts with new fruit, the busy ants march onward. She watches but doesn’t feel the desire to be busy herself.
What wondrous stillness in this poem. Each experience—dog, tree, sugar ant, sunshine—is presented as if Hirshfield were holding them out in her palm one by one for us to see. My, my, look at this, she seems to say quietly. And so she draws us in to her meditative state. The short lines only heighten the quality of attention. There’s a precision and delicacy at work that bring to mind Helen Mirren’s unmatched articulation. I’d really love to hear her read this poem aloud.
It ends so softly that the drama and tension of the last two lines nearly escaped me. We seem to be headed down the path of lugubriosity—
Love is far away
but it’s only a set-up for the line that follows. Suddenly we find ourselves bathed in wonder and beauty:
Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.
I left “Respite” on a Baltimore sidewalk in mid-summer. Since then I’ve been chiding myself for letting it languish away in my photo stream. But now I’m glad I waited so long to post it. Turns out it’s very of-the-moment and on-the-nose this early November afternoon.
Hirshfield describes an in-between space, one between observation and action. For some time these past few weeks I’ve been sitting in the same—but without the equanimity she has. My in-between is more malaise than meditation. More a wet noodle than a coiled spring.
Readers, bear with me a moment. Guests are arriving to the pity party HIrshfield so wisely avoids, and I want to look at each face before I sneak out the back to a more festive event.
The first guest is the re-boot of my years-ago empty nest syndrome, as all four of my children made moves—nearly simultaneously—that brought home the fact that none will live ever live within three hours of us, and that my husband and I are more and more extraneous to their lives, as it should be, of course. That guest came in early fall and got the other guests riled up, guests who had been in the room the whole year, ignored by me but suddenly wanting attention. A dead dog. A mother-in-law, who had lived with us, deceased nearly a year now. Serious health issues plaguing my extended family.
And then there are the lesser guests who behave as if they were the guests of honor: a finished novel sitting in the proverbial drawer, a novel half-heartedly and unsuccessfully marketed and subsequently rejected; a new novel stale and plodding; new writing projects begun and abandoned; my blog set aside and now so judgy of my laziness.
Tiny problems. First-world problems. Nothing to look at here except I’m usually a duck’s back to problems. And getting side-tracked by such commonplace experiences was making me feel like . . . well, like a dusty glass vase.
Enter this poem, which I had positioned mostly as a pun (the futon inviting “Respite,” you see). The poem has tapped me on the shoulder, very gently, and said, There’s better light over here, let’s examine these things together. The in-between place, it turns out, isn’t a dead zone, it isn’t a place where nothing happens and nothing ever will because I was never good enough anyway and people get sick and the lucky ones grow old and die withered. No. It’s a mid-day nap. It’s a sit-down. It’s a church pew. It’s a fertile place, a place to gather the energy of wonder and stillness.
I’ve mentioned before a favorite poem of childhood, one I can still recite from memory, and I do hate to repeat myself, but A.A. Milne’s “Halfway Down” belongs to this moment and it’s running through my head, so here goes. The poem begins:
Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where I sit
In the second stanza Milne switches to “halfway up the stairs” (emphasis mine), then muses that this chosen step is not up and not down but has its own geography—
It isn’t really
It’s somewhere else
Even as a little girl I liked that halfway down stair. A good place to observe what was happening above or below, and there was always a lot going on in our household of thirteen. Anyway, that’s where I am, halfway down the stairs, patient now, observing, biding my time to move, up or down, I don’t know.
I’m re-posting Hirshfield’s biography from a past post:
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’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.
I read an interview with her from PalettePoetry.com and came across this question-and-answer which I suspect is relevant to “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested.”
Q: HOW DO YOU CLIMB OUT OF A DRY SPELL OF WRITING?
JH: By longing. I grow lonely for poems, the way you would grow lonely for an absent lover. And then they return. Longing is the ladder we meet on.