In After, the beauty and wisdom in Jane Hirshfield’s poetry elicits “aha” moments, a sudden clarity. She challenges us, beginning with the first poem, “After Long Silence”: “The untranslatable thought must be the most precise. / Yet the words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins.”
In an essay five years later, she wrote: “To write a new sentence, let alone a new poem, is to cross the threshold into both a larger existence and a profound mystery.” The mystery that is life is a theme she strives to express for her readers and for herself. In the poems in After, Hirshfield coaxes us with her words to enter the mystery.
Perhaps my favourite poem in the collection is the very short (eight-line) poem called “Pyracantha and Plum.” It begins, “Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree, / Spring blossoms tender, hopeful, on another.” Who among us—who hasn’t had the pleasure of witnessing spring in an orchard, or even a garden—hasn’t stopped to marvel at the beauty and awe of nature? Beyond the obvious, the poem speaks to time passing, alludes to art, and subliminally layers more. Then, a few pages on, we come to “Bonsai”: “One morning beginning to notice / which thought pull the spirt out of the body, which return it.” In this poem the “turn” takes us to rebirth and into longing.
My final example of her grace and wisdom shared in After comes in “The Monk Stood Beside a Wheelbarrow:”
The monk stood beside a wheelbarrow, weeping.
[His tears] gathered at its bottom,
where the metal drank them in to make more rust.
You must decide why these lines move you; for me, they speak of grief, loss, and the never-ending surprising transformation that is life.
Seven years later, she published Come, Thief in which one thief is time’s passage and another is mortality, related themes are attachment and loss. The plum tree is a recurring image as it is in After. Here, it shows up in the book’s first poem called “French Horn”:
For a few days only,
the plum tree outside the window
No matter the plums will be small,
eaten only by squirrels and jays.
I feast on the one thing, they on another,
the shoaling bees on a third.
We see how her perspective broadens and shifts, which continues throughout the poem and the collection. With the shift in perspective, readers will also notice a shift away from the first person, but this does not mean that the poems are less personal. We get the clear sense that these poems come deep from within the poet.
Another poem that is characteristically accessible is “The Decision.” It begins, “There is a moment before a shape / hardens, a color sets. / Before the fixative or heat of kiln” and proceeds to explore opportunities for choice. While Hirshfield’ poems are spiritual in nature, they do not succumb to fate nor do they eliminate responsibility of the individual to act. At this poem’s conclusion, she shows us just how big a small change can be: “As a sandy track-rut changes when called a Silk Road: / it cannot be after turned back from.”
Finally, in “The Promise,” Hirshfield provides a litany of things she wants to stay the same, but that do not, including:
Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.
And after the litany through flowers, a spider, green leaves, and the earth itself, she concludes with irony that brings a chuckle: “Stay, I said to my loves. / Each answered, / Always.” [Emphasis the poet’s.]
Check out my review of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, essays by Jane Hirshfield. Also, look for other of Jane Hirshfield’s poetry books.
If you enjoyed reading about Jane Hirshfield’s poetry, you might also like these previously published poetry reviews:
- The Invisible Presence: Sixteen Poets of Spanish America 1925-1995
- The Whetting Stone by Taylor Mali
- The Border Surrounds Us and other writing by Karen Connelly
- Bicycle Thieves by Mary di Michele
- What the Soul Doesn’t Want by Lorna Crozier