Transcendence

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Reviewed by Steven Ratiner
Sunday, August 6, 2006

AFTER

Poems

By Jane Hirshfield

HarperCollins. 97 pp. $23.95

"Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry." So said one of the most accomplished practicioners writing in English today, Seamus Heaney. For him, the power of the poem is achieved by running more voltage through the poetic device, by "over-languaging the language." What distinguishes this very specialized work from all the rest of written expression is that palpable sense of more. Or sometimes less. . . .

Despite a number of interesting experimental movements, the dominant mode in American poetry over the past quarter-century is a kind of secular plainsong that steers clear of rich musicality, complicated structures and that notion of superfluity. Perhaps the contemporary sensibility has been affected by how frequently we've seen bad ideas trotted out in elaborate intellectual clothing. From poetry to politics to pop culture, we've learned to be wary of the thorn tucked away inside the dramatic flourish, the manipulative impulse concealed by stylistic embellishment. In reaction, the governing poetic principles seem to be clarity and simplicity.

In the hands of a skilled writer, especially one who has committed years to observing and thinking about some small corner of existence -- poets such as Jack Gilbert, Mary Oliver and Louise Gl├╝ck -- this poetry can achieve breathtaking effects that are all the more mystifying because, at first, we can find no apparent cause for this sudden in-rush of energy.

Very quietly, Jane Hirshfield has been producing work that is earning her a place in the pantheon of those modern masters of simplicity. The publication of her sixth volume of poetry, After , will only serve to broaden her audience and solidify that reputation.

Hirshfield is a practicing Buddhist who has made her home in northern California -- as did the venerable Gary Snyder before her. But her religious discipline is rarely an overt presence in her texts. Her poems are more in the spirit of the T'ang Dynasty masters such as Wang Wei, whose spiritual outlook was wholly ingrained in the simplest practices of daily life, a reflected light emanating from the landscape. By paring down the moment to its essential elements and allowing ephemeral thoughts to be anchored within the tangible things of the world, Hirshfield comes up with poems that brilliantly portray even mundane experiences as if they were nothing short of revelation.

Take the following short poem, which appears near the end of the new collection:

Red Scarf

The red scarf


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