Review of The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield

Knopf, 2015 $19.94 (hardback)

by James Crews

There is some new and dazzling force at work in The Beauty, Jane Hirshfield’s latest and much-anticipated collection of poetry. Yet I must admit, I didn’t entirely appreciate the rawness and unpredictability of these poems at first. I have been a fan of Hirshfield’s for well over a decade now, and have grown accustomed to the careful way she constructs her poems, placing every word with unparalleled precision on the page. Her trademark meticulousness is still present in this new volume, but when you’ve followed a writer through book after book, you begin to grow somewhat possessive of her work and distinctive style; even the slightest alterations, on first blush, can be unsettling. Perhaps one of the best examples of Hirshfield’s more expansive approach is “How Rarely I Have Stopped to Thank the Steady Effort” in which a sudden awareness of the present moment dawns on the speaker during a pause between her companion’s words:

. . . the standing walls keep
standing with their whole attention.
A noisy crow call lowers and lifts its branch,
the crow scent enters the leaves, enters the bark,
like stirred-in honey gone into tea.

Hirshfield’s subject in so many of her past poems has been the openings or gaps between things. While this poem captures one such opening, it is seems ultimately to be about “dissolution,” the way the essence of that crow “enters the leaves, enters the bark,” marking its presence even when it has gone, just as “stirred-in honey” sweetens tea as it becomes one with the hot liquid.

The poet and critic Dana Gioia, in a recent essay in Dark Horse, refers to the delight and surprise we often find in poems (and which is ever-present in Hirshfield’s work) as “enchantment.” In explaining his choice of that word, he says: “It is significant that the Latin word for poetry, carmen, is also the word the Romans used for a song, a magic spell, a religious incarnation, or a prophecy—all verbal constructions whose auditory powers can produce a magical effect on the listener.” No matter what we call it, the effect of a poem is not quantifiable, and because Hirshfield’s poems often take up the “unsayable” as their central subject, this makes such pieces all the more difficult to pin down and categorize—which is perhaps a positive thing: We should not need to neatly label our poems, or any other pieces of art for that matter.

Another fine example of Hirshfield’s “enchantment” is “All Souls,” from which the collection draws its title. The poem begins simply enough with the statement, “In Italy, on the day of the dead,/they ring bells,/from every church and village in every direction.” But then she begins to describe those particular bell-strokes that— because they are not meant to mark the hours—exist outside of time, and the poem takes on an unbreakable momentum:

. . . Tuneless, keyless,
rhythm of wings at the door of the hive
when the entrance is suddenly shuttered
and the bees, returned heavy, see
that the world of flowering and pollen is over.

The scene she describes here is, of course, a kind of death, an end to the rhythm of the bees’ daily work. But how does a poet go from describing bells and death to bees and back?:

. . . Undimensioned
the tongues of bells,
the ropes of the bells, their big iron bodies unholy.
Barred from form, barred from bars,
from relation. The beauty—unspeakable—
was beauty. I drank it and thirsted,
I stopped. I ran. Wanted closer in every direction.

Hirshfield captures the fervor of hearing and being captive to such an all-encompassing sound whose sole purpose is to remind us of the dead, and thereby our own mortality. Yet the sound—though it cannot adequately be described with human speech, she says—was beautiful, “was beauty” itself. Beautiful because true? Because it was “unspeakable,” inexplicable, and thus more true? Happily, Hirshfield never quite explains. She only confesses that she, who has “not known bombardment,” was nevertheless caught off-guard by “each bell-stroke released without memory/or judgment, unviolent, untender. Uncaring . . . ” By the end of this poem, which is an enchantment and ravishment both, the reader feels bombarded herself by the relentless beauty and truth of these lines.

It is almost impossible to characterize a poet’s slow transformation with each new collection or set of poems released into the world, yet the change in direction here is undeniable. In order to find some reason why one of the most celebrated and well-known poets in the country (and in the world) would take such sudden and risky turns, it would be wise to turn to her book of essays (published concurrently with The Beauty), Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. This book of prose continues explorations made in her previous collection of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, and one gets the sense that Hirshfield has been hard at work, writing a kind of extended artist’s statement in these pieces (though the poems she discusses are all by other poets). In the first paragraph of the essay, “Close Reading: Windows,” for instance, we see what could be her defense for the discursive wonder inherent in her own work: “Many good poems have a kind of window-moment in them—they change their direction of gaze in a way that suddenly opens a broadened landscape of meaning and feeling. Encountering such a moment, the reader breathes in some new infusion, as steeply perceptible as any physical window’s increase of light, scent, sound or air.” In the next essay in Ten Windows, Hirshfield examines poetry’s potential for surprise and what renders it, as Pound once put it, “news that stays news.” We find in this piece another statement that helps to contextualize and illuminate her latest work: “The poem is a small and intimate crisis, preserved intact through time by memorable sounds and by its expansion of the perimeters of existence in every direction.” Here is evidence of this poet’s “expansive” and noble ambition: Not only to test the limits of each poem, but also to push against the boundaries of “existence,” which she implies we create with our own minds, with the language we use to describe our intimate worlds. She goes on in this same vein: “Cognitive and creative discoveries are made in the same way as much of biological life is: by acts of generative recombination. Disparate elements are brought together to see if they might make a viable new whole.” I know of no other more worthy goal for an already accomplished poet than to let her work evolve and take on new forms—to discover a whole new species of poem never before written quite like this.

It bears pointing out, however, that a few of these “generative recombinations” do not dazzle or work particularly well, at least for this reader. One example is “Cellophane: An Assay,” which continues Hirshfield’s close examination of everyday, seemingly forgettable objects. The piece begins wonderfully with her unlikely direct address of cellophane itself:

There are kinds of transparence.
Yours was invented
sometime between
tempered glass and Saran Wrap.

I have at times wanted to be you:
something looked through and past.

There is such honesty in this confession of having wanted to be so “transparent” and unimportant that world looks “past” you. The poem might have ended a few stanzas down with these lines, which speak also to one of the main purposes of poetry:

Your art is audible, immodest:
to preserve against time.

And yet, seeming to find its own “window-moment,” the poem goes on, quite unexpectedly:

In this, you are like a small metal flute
whose throat knows no aging
or a few words
from the second century
stumbled on once in translation . . .

These two new similes do not, unfortunately, translate for me. I am more than willing to “breathe in some new infusion” in a poem, but only if the disparate elements of that infusion somehow complement each other—only if they connect. Perhaps the failure is my own, these leaps being simply too great for my mind to make. Moments like these, however, are the rare exception in an otherwise exceedingly beautiful and challenging book. After all, anytime a writer takes risks, as Hirshfield repeatedly does, each reader will respond differently according to her or his own tastes and inclinations. As she says in another essay from Ten Windows: “Surely the maker of a poem is never a comfortable and purely detached observer. The writer is driven, goaded, hounded.” Indeed, there is a sense of the swerve in many of these new poems, of being chased and running away (“I stopped. I ran,” she writes in “All Souls”) as though the speaker were both being pursued and pursuing some new form of poetry.

Though Hirshfield’s work has always been wide-ranging and ravenous, one of her perennial concerns has been our human transience. Indeed, The Beauty seems strongest when it is asking one of the most difficult questions any artist can take on: What makes us human? What are the parts of our body and mind—seen and unseen, weighed and unweighable—that render us who we are? Take, for instance, the aforementioned “My Proteins” in which she says:

A body it seems is a highway,
a cloverleaf crossing
well built, well traversed.
Some of me going north, some going south.

Ninety percent of my cells, they have discovered,
are not my own person,
they are other beings inside me.

To realize that we are not precisely who we think we are—or not only that—and are composed mostly of “other beings” is to see ourselves, quite radically, as a whole other world or collection of worlds. Hirshfield follows this line of thinking in several other pieces, including one of my favorites from the collection, “Like the Small Hole by the Path-Side Something Lives In”:

Like the small hole by the path-side something lives in,
in me are lives I do not know the names of,

nor the fates of,
nor the hungers of or what they eat.

They eat of me.
Of small and blemished apples in low fields of me
whose rocky streams and droughts I do not drink.

Once again, the poet invites us to imagine ourselves, alongside her, as vaster and more intricate, more spacious than we might ever have thought. She goes on masterfully, speaking of this other complex world both on and within our bodies:

There too have been the hard extinctions,
missing birds once feasted on and feasting.

There too must be machines
like loud ideas with tungsten bits that grind the day.

And when a few of these unknown creatures do “escape” or die off, she says, “They leave behind/small holes that something unweighed by the self-scale lives in.” One thinks of the old Zen tale that she mentions in another poem, “Entanglement”:

A story told often: after the lecture, the widow
insisting the universe rests on the back of a turtle.
And what, the physicist
asks, does the turtle rest on?

Very clever, young man, she replies, very clever,
but it’s turtles all the way down.

Whether speaking of the universe, or the universe that surely encompasses each of our bodies, Hirshfield suggests again and again that there are worlds stacked upon worlds in us, with countless inhabitants who are separate worlds unto themselves. It broadens the mind and expands our field of human consciousness simply to consider the possibilities of the multitudes we surely contain.

I have made much of the new forces that drive the poems in The Beauty, but no matter what form they assume, readers can trust that Jane Hirshfield is one of a handful of contemporary masters well aware of the risks she takes and her intentions behind them. As she points out in another essay from Ten Windows, “Seeing through Words”: “Awareness of the mind’s movements makes clear that it is the mind’s nature to move.” This new book offers exuberant evidence of what happens when a poet decides to follow her mind’s and body’s many twists and turns, for as she goes on to say in that same essay, “Feeling within ourselves the lives of others (people, creatures, plants, and things) who share this world is what allows us to feel as we do at all.” Why else write or read poetry, if not to widen our already capacious selves and tap into our capacity for greater imagination and empathy?