An interesting assortment of thieves is at work in Jane Hirshfield’s vibrant new volume of poetry, “Come, Thief.” Time is prominent among them, that perpetual pickpocket who nimbly makes off with everything from a few unguarded moments to whole years of our lives. Illness and mortality make their appearances, as well, the sort of brute forces that rob us of freedom, identity and eventually life itself. Our need to safeguard what we brand as ours only exposes us to that insidious sneak-thief that every Buddhist dreads: attachment and all its attendant sufferings. What’s most interesting, though, is Hirshfield’s response to this possibility of loss: the cultivation of a poetic voice that combines both equanimity and a quiet passion. This celebrated American poet clearly savors the material world but does not shy away from seeing past it.
Earlier in her career, Hirshfield chafed a bit under the mantle of “Buddhist poet” (a biographical detail mentioned in every article about her work), fearing that categorization would only narrow her reader’s experience. In choosing this title for her seventh collection (“welcoming the thief” is a common motif in Buddhist parables), she seems to be embracing the popular perception, highlighting perhaps how central her spiritual perspective is in the development of her work.
This is not to say that her poetry is essentially religious; Hirshfield’s verse involves a deepening attention to every aspect of human experience, from the dailiness of our lives to the most ineffable moments. In these clear-eyed and often luminous poems, she has borrowed a page from the great Tang Dynasty masters (a poetry also deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy) and fused style and philosophical outlook into a fresh way of representing experience. We notice the reduced presence of the “I” pronoun, a conscious turning away from what the writer Terrence Des Pres disparaged in contemporary poetry as “the further adventures of the self-delighted self.” What’s more, she has loosened her relationship with that mainstay of Western literature, the commitment to a single point of view, and slips easily from the subjective to the objective realms.
Take, for example, the opening lines from “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.
What in this unpleated world isn’t someone’s seduction?
But in the very next line, we find ourselves in the audience of a Mahler concert, watching a young horn player clear his instrument between passages. Instantaneously, the music is concluded, and, as the musicians take their bows, we sense the smoldering relationship between the man and the woman playing viola. In all these situations, something larger engulfs the participants — and the poem closes with the observation that these two do not hear the thunderous applause around them:
As the plum’s blossoms do not hear the bee
nor taste themselves turned into storable honey
by that sumptuous disturbance.
Hirshfield’s writing seems to contain two very different impulses: a discursive energy that embraces rich elaboration (manifested in poems such as “Shadow: An Assay,” part of a series of explorations begun in her previous collection, “After”), countered by a minimalist’s love of clear, implicit images. In a few poems, one force overshadows the other, and the impact, to my mind, becomes too muted. But when the two work together in a curious counterpoint, the effects can be marvelous, captivating the eye with closely observed detail and delighting the ear with her exacting diction and rhythmical invention.
“Fifteen Pebbles,” a series of haikulike bursts, demonstrates her potent strategy. The reader’s attention rests comfortably on a few spare images, while the mind is allowed to wrestle with what’s unseen, unsaid. “The Pear” is one of two moving elegiac lyrics about the poet Leonard Nathan and the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease; the poet both grieves and gives way, all in a single vivid figure. And the book’s closing poem, “The Supple Deer” (containing an echo of one of Hirshfield’s best-known pieces, “The Envoy”), describes a deer leaping through a narrow opening in a fence. It concludes with the ache of envy — not for that totemic animal energy or the freedom it represents, but for the fence itself: “To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.” You might say that much of this poet’s work has been an ongoing experiment in trying to concoct just the right opening, just the precise tone, to entice life’s untamed moments to jump, first through the poet’s mind, then the reader’s, before inevitably shaking free of both.
Ratiner’s interview collection “Giving Their Word: Conversations With Contemporary Poets” was recently reissued in paperback.
By Jane Hirshfield
Knopf. 93 pp. $25