Posts Tagged ‘Costco’

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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I Have News for You
by Tony Hoagland

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies

I was sitting in Costco’s concrete food court with my husband as he ate lunch.

“Look around,” I said, sighing dramatically.  “Here’s the crowning glory of our consumer culture:  obesity, obesity, and more obesity.”

He glared at me.  “Can I please finish my hot dog in peace?”

Clearly I can relate to the over-thinkers poet Tony Hoagland playfully roasts in “ I Have News For You.”  It’s not always a group I want to belong to, especially after reading this poem. We over-thinkers can be such silly creatures—blocking sidewalks as we ponder our existence, scouring life for symbols and irony the way other people look for bargains and good parking spaces. If only we could stop thinking so much and simply feel the breeze at the window, swat the fly in the motel room, and gaze at the lemon-yellow moon.

I really like this poem.  I love how the title rolls right into the first line. The title, which is repeated towards the end, sounds faintly aggressive (just add “buddy” or “pal” to the end and you’ll hear it), but also humorous, a quality lacking in the over-thinkers of the poem. So despite of the fact that the poem’s speaker includes himself in this group of kill-joys (“there are people unlike me and you”), his drollery makes him a member of the other camp as well.*

The person addressed in the poem, and by extension the speaker of the poem, is the type of person who invents symbols, interprets behavior, cannibalizes friends and family for material, yearns for fame, and is tortured by failure. Sure sounds like a writer to me.

In other words, here again Hoagland (or the poem’s speaker) straddles the opposing camps of thinkers and feelers. Hoagland pokes fun at the very condition which allows him to poke fun. To write a poem about people who spend too much time making metaphors and analyzing behavior, he has to create metaphors and examine his own and his friend’s life.  He uses elevated, academic language to sharpen the humor of his judgments, and the humor provides a lightness that keeps him from becoming that which he ridicules.   (And he does have a delightful sense of humor which you can enjoy here.)

In the last section, the humor fades and the poem’s mood turns wistful.  In creating an image that is purely physical, the speaker seems to yearn for release from the burdens of abstract thought:

I have news for you—

there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in

and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies

Notice the lack of end punctuation.  (Hoagland wants you to notice it.)  The phrase drifts off, very like the breeze it describes, unweighted by periods or semi-colons or intense rumination.  Or perhaps the phrase is a visual representation of the speaker’s voice trailing off, as he wanders back in his own head. (Oh dear. Have I fallen into a trap here?  Am I “sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through the noisy straw”?)

Not for any particular reason, on a warm September weekend I taped “I Have News For You” to the deck of a beach house where I was staying for a girls’ weekend. I’d rather have posted a poem celebrating friendship, but I didn’t bring one with me. Nothing else I packed spoke to me. (Unfortunately I felt same way about my wardrobe choices.)  The very urban Grace Paley didn’t belong in the salty air; old Walt Whitman’s free spirit belonged, but no one with me would have enjoyed reading him; and the haiku I brought about gray hairs on a pillow was a downer. Hoagland earned his space by default.

But I have succeeded in fashioning a good reason for this poem-elfing because, like those tortured souls in the poem, I can wrangle connective tissue out of sand.  Some background first: the women at the beach house have been friends since high school, some even longer than that, and for twenty-one years have reunited annually.

Not one of us is quite the same as we were as teenagers—life has tossed some around more than others—and as the years go by, the differences between us are more marked. Some have eight children and others two; some have high-powered careers, others are at home; some are passionately religious and others more secular; some are Democrats, some Republican. These differences and those in marital status, income, and temperament might divide other friends, but they don’t matter to us.  We all treasure our friendship and our time together. We hang.  We sun ourselves.  We talk and advise and gossip and remember wild times.  There’s a lot of beach time, a lot of beer, some good greasy food, music and late-night dancing.  And lots of laughing.  For this weekend we leave behind worry over health issues and home life.  We’re together, we’re in the sun, baby, and it feels warm and wonderful. No over-thinking allowed.

That weekend the girls played a lot of cornhole. For the uninitiated, cornhole is a mindless beanbag tossing game.  Two teams compete to throw the bags into holes on plywood ramps. Hoagland might have observed that there were the people who played cornhole and others (okay, maybe just one person) who found it a communal evocation of scatological activity.

Someone asked me to play.  “No thanks,” I said.  “I don’t like games of accuracy.”

But I had second thoughts and tossed a few beanbags just to get over myself.  And sat back down on a lawnchair with the sun on my back and a cold, cold beer


*The dichotomy Hoagland sets up between people who live in their heads and those who live in their bodies reminds me of the old story about former Redskin John Riggins sitting next to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a black tie dinner. “Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up!” he said, shortly before passing out on the floor.

Lucky folks in the Washington area:  Tony Hoagland is giving a reading November 12 at the Library of Congress.  Look here for details.

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