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still hangs over the chairback.
In its folds,
like a perfume
that cannot be quite remembered,
That the scarf "still" hangs over the chair makes us privy to a passage of time, a certain intimacy, the utter daily-ness of even the dearest relationships. Who laid it there, after a long day, intending to tidy up later when time allowed? And who voices the poem's two simple observations, all while leaving the depths of emotion unrevealed? Why can't she bring herself to put away the errant scarf, to restore the household to its proper order? That "inconceivable before" gradually solidifies in our consciousness until it becomes an irrevocable border; beyond it remain those old days of normality that, as is often the case, only convey how loved they were through their absence.
The elegiac spirit of the poem is quietly reinforced in even the smallest elements; and though the aural quality of the poem is subdued, listen to the interplay between the soft burr of the abundant r's set against the hard-edged limitation of the c's. Even before the mind comprehends, the ear responds to that muted tug-of-war between longing and the acceptance of loss.
The poet's approach is clearly at work in "After Long Silence," the collection's opening poem, bringing to bear, in equal measures, precise vision and rigorous thought; the result is a marvelous sense of spaciousness. As she stands alone in her kitchen at night, Hirshfield's words create a clearing where even the ordinary moment is capable of yielding a sense of life's momentousness (which the Buddhist terms "mindfulness" but the poet is too self-possessed to lecture us about). The poem concludes with two lines that set the benchmark for the work to come:
The untranslatable thought must be the most precise.
Yet words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins.
Even when tackling subjects of obvious emotional intensity -- the deathbed of a friend ("The Bell Zygmunt"), the challenges of a spiritual life ("Theology" and "Between the Material World and the World of Feeling") -- Hirshfield strives for that same equanimity and unswerving attention, envying "the blue-green curve of a vase's shoulder, which holds whatever is placed within it -- the living flower or the dead -- with an equally tender balance."
Of course, Hirshfield's thoroughly human poems can only steer toward that perfection: "I, who am made of you only," she says to and about her concept of the moment, "speak these words against your unmasterable instruction -- // A knife cannot cut itself open,/ yet you ask me both to be you and to know you" ("Instant Glimpsable Only for an Instant"). This metaphysical balancing act is where the poet has situated her writing. When the poems are less than enthralling, we find the balance has shifted dangerously toward the "knowing" rather than the "being" side of the scale, as in some of the "Assays" series -- deep investigations of the ordinary (like "Gravel," "Tears," and even those humble prepositions "Of," "To," and "And"). Yet even the least successful of them is still thoughtful, inventive, beautiful -- qualities many a lesser poet would bargain for in a heartbeat. And in the case of her best work, the poems are so open-hearted and marvelously conceived that they are not just beautiful themselves but effortlessly contain beauty -- much like her imagined blue-green vase. What's more, they make us suddenly aware of what we too contain at every savored moment of the day. ·
Steven Ratiner is a poet and writer in Arlington, Mass.