Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mark S. Burrows reads Jane Hirshfield's new book

Poet Jane Hirshfield
Poet and Rilke scholar Mark S. Burrows reviews Jane Hirshfield's new poems, Come, Thief,
a book that invites us in to a new generosity of living, guarding against calamity having "the last word".

Some books of poetry open their arms to the reader with an immediate welcome. Others are just as hospitable, but need more time and greater attentiveness to invite our perhaps reluctant entrance.  Wisdom is like this, often so disarmingly simple that we fail to recognize it in our hurry to find “the important.”  I have come to expect such an opening with Jane Hirshfield’s poems, and her new collection, Come, Thief, does not disappoint.

These are poems shaped by the writer’s slow and persistent journey of looking long and hard at life, without firm demands or settled expectations, in order to find meaning emerging in the ordinary.  They embody in their way of seeing the posture of openness so central to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. 

Such a stance invites us to let things be as they are, and not as we want them or need them to be.  It opens us to hear things speaking in their own language, to listen for their often startling grammar, their new and unexpected vocabulary, rather than prattling on with what we already knew. It asks us to turn from our hurried expectations and impatient certainties; to set aside our reluctance to embrace the difficult in our lives; to open ourselves to new findings beyond our habitual denial of loss. 

A line from one of these poems illustrates this posture with unsettling clarity: “Just so, calamity turns toward calmness.” Does it, though?

Most of us would argue against this some of the time, and many might find it incomprehensible much of the time.  But is it true as a possibility, as a subversive way of inhabiting our own lives as well as the world we share with others?  Perhaps, yes, perhaps. And living into this possibility, engaging this “perhaps", might be for us the beginning of wisdom.  Particularly when it seems to us that calamity has the last word. 

Of course, the poet is not trying to deny this point. What she is asking of us, though, is that we wonder with her whether the tragedies of our lives, the long list of dead-ends and disappointments, might not open us to another way of being— like a softening of our need for order; a lessening of our instinct for vengeance; a widening of our patience toward others, particularly those who have hurt us.  Could calamity turn toward calmness, and turn us toward calmness?  Yes, of course it could.  But everything depends on how we face such things, as those who practice mindfulness know.

The poem that offers this line, “All the Difficult Hours and Minutes,” is treasure enough to encourage us to take up this book and read it.  Slowly.  Deliberately.  And often. It is the kind of writing meant for a precious hour in the midst of a busy day, or an afternoon escape from the crowds when we find ourselves in an uninterrupted corner of a quiet cafĂ©.  But would such experiences be an escape, or finally something more like a homecoming? Again, everything depends—as Hirshfield’s poems persistently remind us—on the ways we choose to belong in and to this world with all its puzzles, incongruities and difficulties.

Jane Hirshfield's Come, Thief
Such a book calls us to take another look at our own lives. It asks us to consider what the poet here calls “small-sized” mysteries, the ones all about us which we so seldom see—precisely because we rarely look for them, lying in wait for us as they do in the ordinary stretches of our lives.  Such poems as these open a path for us to look—and look again—at the familiar, and find there the too often unnoticed wisdom of “yes” that is always sufficient for the day at hand.  As she notes in one of these poems, “How fragile we are, between the few good moments.”  Reading such poems as these reminds us both of this fragility and of this goodness, in our lives and in the lives of others.  And this is reason enough to turn to a collection like this, hoping to glimpse an enlargement of life and desiring to widen the circumference of generosity in our world.  And who among us is too important or hurried to pause for such discoveries as these?

Mark S. Burrows is a poet, literary critic and translator. His Prayers of a Young Poet (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated and introduced by Mark S. Burrows) is just out and will be reviewed here shortly. 

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Poet and Rilke scholar Mark S. Burrows

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