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Archive for the ‘Jane Hirshfield’ Category

 

poem is on mantle next to picture of Grace Hemingway

poem is on mantle next to picture of Grace Hemingway

In a Room With Five People, Six Griefs

by Jane Hirshfield

 

In a room with five people, six griefs.

Some you will hear of, some not.

Let the room hold them, their fears, their anger.

Let there be walls and windows, a ceiling.

A door through which time

changer of everything

can enter.

 

IMG_3007

 

A poem elf couldn’t ask for a better invitation: a tour of Ernest Hemingway’s mother’s cottage on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, and free reign to leave behind and photograph whatever poem I wanted.

 

As usual, I chose a poem from a small selection I always keep on hand, and also as usual, the choice bordered on random but landed in serendipitous.

 

More on that later, but first a short history of Grace Cottage. In 1905, the Hemingway family bought Longfield Farm, a 40-acre property across the lake from the more famous Hemingway Walloon property, Windemere (now a Registered National Historic Landmark). Grace Hall Hemingway, Hemingway’s mother, had built Windemere in 1899 with money from an inheritance.

 

As a teenager, Ernest Hemingway helped on Longfield Farm during summer vacations, working the orchards, fields, and ice house. He often camped in the surrounding woods, probably enjoying a break from his large family and his parents’ strict rules.

 

Grace, too, liked to get away from the family. In 1919, against the objections of her husband, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, she built Grace Cottage on the farm. I’m guessing Clarence’s objections had more to do with money (he would later commit suicide following financial and health problems) than with the fact that she would be spending her summers a boat-ride away from her six children. He knew she would not be neglecting her parental duties.

 

Because she didn’t have parental duties.

 

Okay, she read to the children and took care of their cultural education (no small contribution, considering the result), but Clarence made the children breakfast (and brought Grace breakfast in bed), grocery-shopped, managed the household staff, and taught the kids to hunt, fish and identify plants.

 

Carol Hemingway Gardner, the youngest of the Hemingway kids, explained her parents’ unusual arrangement this way:

 

The doctor was devoted to humane science and to the solving of practical problems. Both considered themselves professionals and each respected the other. They were way ahead of their time in this respect. My mother’s involvement in music and art was not a hobby. It was her full-time preoccupation and my father admired her work.

 

IMG_3028Grace was a trained opera singer who once sang at Madison Square Garden. (Strange fact: while studying voice in New York, she became friends with an aspiring illustrator, Maud Humphrey, who gave birth to a son—Humphrey Bogart—the same year that Grace gave birth to Ernest. The women remained friends, and years later Humphrey Bogart starred in To Have and Have Not, a film based on Hemingway’s book of the same name.) After Grace abandoned her stage career to marry Clarence, she continued to make a living through her music: she gave lessons, performed at local recitals, directed a church choir, and composed and published music. In her fifties she took up painting. She was good enough to have exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and to hold thirty solo shows. (You can see some of her paintings here.).

 

In another arrangement unusual for the time, Grace shared the cottage with a much younger woman, Ruth Arnold, her former music pupil and her children’s nanny. Together they built furniture for the new house and braided rugs. The cottage served as a studio where Grace could paint and compose without interruption. Like her son, who immortalized Walloon Lake in the Nick Adams stories, Grace found inspiration from her surroundings. You can hear her song, “Lovely Walloona,” here and here. (These videos of college kids singing such an old-timey song are the sweetest thing you’ll watch all day.)

 

IMG_3026I had always thought Grace Cottage was the place Hemingway spent his honeymoon with Hadley Richardson, the first of his four wives, but I was wrong. The only honeymoon time he and Hadley spent at Grace Cottage was when they pushed off from the cottage shoreline to row across the lake for two weeks at Windemere. But Grace Cottage does have a place in his honeymoon history. The year before he got married, Grace and Ernest had a blow-out fight known as “The Incident.” Grace saw her son as a disrespectful, drunken, womanizing loafer (she wanted him to go to college) and when she tracked him down at 3 a.m. one morning, she kicked him out of the house. So her offer of Windemere for Ernest’s honeymoon shows a softening towards him–especially since Clarence had to move in with her at Grace Cottage for those two weeks, the one and only time he would stay there.

 

Outside that rapprochement, Grace and Ernest had a harrowing relationship the rest of their lives. And outside of the Walloon summers, the Hemingway family had harrowing experiences over generations. Their penchant for tragedy rivals the Kennedys’. If poet Jane Hirshfield had written “In a Room With Five People, Six Griefs” specifically for the Hemingways, she might well have titled it, “In a Family of Five Generations, Six Suicides.” Here’s the sad list of their losses: Hemingway’s paternal grandfather, his father, two of his siblings, himself, and his granddaughter. His maternal grandfather attempted suicide but was foiled.

 

IMG_3023I was glad to leave Hirshfield’s poem on the mantle of Grace Cottage. It was a mark, it seemed to me, of the peace that’s settled over the cottage, and I hope over the present generation of Hemingways, some of who still live over at Windemere. The wood floors creaked, the upstairs rooms were airless and stifling, spiders had the run of the place, but still the cottage struck me as a delightful place, like a Goldilocks house, just the right size for the artistic endeavors and dreams it once housed. If time, changer of everything, had entered through the cottage door, grief had walked out long ago. Not to get too poetic about it.

 

Now on to the poem itself.

 

The set-up of Hirshfield’s poem—In a room with five people, six griefs—puts me in mind of stage directions. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” maybe, or an experimental play with characters who are numbered instead of named and who carry big boxes labeled “Grief.”

 

Some have more boxes than others. (The poem’s second line—Some you will know of, some not—would be a good antidote when we feel disgust towards other people’s foibles and faults.) The uneven distribution of griefs creates a tension in the room where the poet, the creator, has placed her five characters. But even as the poet boxes her characters in and loads them with trouble, she configures a door, an opening for change, for an easing of fears, anger, and grief. The tension in the poem and in the room is drained by the simple sentences, the clarity of language, and the patient, careful whittling down of lines to the final phrase, can enter.

 

The poem has an appealing spirit, a calming wisdom. There’s an acceptance of pain, an understanding that all things pass, and a pleasure in the act of creating. Not for nothing does Hirshfield use the language of Genesis: Let there be a door. And there was a door.

 

I came across something Grace Hemingway wrote that I connect to that idea of the act of creating as a balm to sorrow. She wrote, “The haunting specter of fear must be gagged, tied and thrown out of our lives in order that we may climb the steps of creative work and accomplish what our souls yearn for.  The only thing in life that gives real happiness is creative work because that is partnership with the Great Creator.”

 

God knows she had her griefs, or caused them. But she had her joys as well, and that is what I found on my visit to her cottage.

 

You can read about poet Jane Hirshfield here, from a previous post.

 

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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.)

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