(Ed. note: This is the first installment of Brian Bouldrey's three-part interview with Jane Hirshfield, occasioned by her just-released collection Come,Thief. The remaining installments will appear over the next few days. Kevin Young selected Hirshfield's poem "The Cloudy Vase" for the Best American Poetry 2011. Go here for a schedule of Jane's upcoming readings. I wish to thank Nick Shapland, our editorial intern, for his help with editing and formatting this post.sdh)
There is something selfish I experience in reading a Jane Hirshfield poem, because the thoughts, the music, and the emotions seem familiar, even specific. My God, I’ll gasp, she’s writing about me! And while I feel selfish, Hirshfield is nothing but generous. In her new collection, Come, Thief, out this month from Knopf, there are over a hundred poems with at least a dozen gifts to find in each; you do the math. For Hirshfield readers, this collection is both more of what you love (who among us doesn’t have a favorite, yellowed and curling, stuck behind a magnet to the refrigerator?) and a new exploration of what it means to live a whole life. These are songs of innocence and experience, and time, time, time is of the essence. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jane, public treasure and private friend, to talk about her work, both new and old.
Brian: It only seems like yesterday that I met you, Jane, in the woods at Yaddo, in 1987. Of Gravity & Angels hadn’t yet even been published! I’ve read every book since. There are books of yours I love so much that I’ve dog-eared the pages and underlined things and…well, you get the picture. Your poems are the sort that become part of living, because they are about living. I think it was The Hungry Mind Review that commented: “These are poems for people who have lived a little, that is to say, a lot.”
Jane: I’m amazed that you remember, Brian. Kathleen Norris wrote that, about my third book, The October Palace. Yaddo is a big presence in that book, you know. The cover is a snapshot of the old stone ice-house tower, reflected in a lake with floating autumn leaves. One allusion behind the title is the Russian “Winter Palace,” but another’s the trope of the house with many rooms and what that means: many ways of being, many attitudes, all possible, all acknowledged. The kind of generous breathing space we mean when we say “roomy.” I’d never lived in a house as many-roomed as at Yaddo, and that was just West House, a mere eighteen rooms, not the Mansion. Still, it felt palatial—which to my particular psyche has less to do with power or hierarchy than with ideas of the infinite and various, and of saturation with interesting detail. A palace’s broom closet’s doorknob is interesting. What should we do with these human lives of ours except go into as many rooms as we can? I’ve always wanted to escape truncation and tameness. Even during the times when my life has looked rather astringent and simplified from the outside, it’s been simplified within the intentions of unshackling.
"I do think it’s central, that all good poems are out of hand and ungraspable, in some way or other."
Brian: Well, Come, Thief, is no exception—there are so many experiences written about and written to in here: weddings, deaths, lost loves, beginnings and endings. In certain ways your life is an open book of poems here. I would never call you a “confessional” poet, but it’s clear that you, like the perfect reader of your poems, have lived a little, that you have a real zest for living. And the metaphors, the music, the experience all seem to rise up out of the evidence, the things.
Jane: I’ve always loved George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book, Metaphors We Live By, because it makes so clear that we think with and inside the body. The most abstract language has in its taproot the pull of the tongue, etymologically—the word “abstract” holds the idea of traction, the word “language” holds the Latin for tongue. “Idea” has its roots in the Greek idein, physical seeing; “comprehension” carries the felt grasp of the hand. We are animals, and our understanding occurs in the body, in a physical world where objects, thought, feeling, experience coexist as a multicolored, spinning, molecular tangle.We understand that spinning yarn by picking it up, sometimes batting it around like a cat, for sheer pleasure, sometimes taking a crochet hook and making a hat or scarf, sometimes bundling it into a pillow or blanket. You can take a pair of scissors to the tangle for an instant—but it’s still yarn, dyed from the wool of living sheep or spun from man-made fibers that began as petroleum, that is, from something taken from the earth that once lived, hungered, listened. And isn’t it kind of strange and wonderful that the word “yarn” came to mean “story”? That in itself says a lot. How did that happen? As for the open-book of my work, a poem is always personal, for me. Any poem comes from some question, pressure, fracture, tear in my life. I do, though, write more at the level of x-ray than of nude. You can see the circumstance but not the facts. In this book, there’s that one poem where I’m running around outside naked... But never mind. That’s an exception.
Brian: I am sure you have been questioned to death about the Eastern traditions that have influenced your poetry over the years, because of your long connection to Buddhism but also because of the translations you’ve done (The Ink Dark Moon, etc.). I thought I might ask instead how the Western traditions have influenced your work. The Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton, observes in “Orthodoxy”, that the symbols of Western religion (the Star of David, the crucifix) are made of paradox and contradiction, as lines cross each other in opposition, while the symbols of Hinduism and Buddhism are symbols of harmony. In your poetry there is definitely that paradox and contradiction that pleases my Western mind, I must admit—how beauty can rise from sadness and loss, how there is a darkness to summer light, how “Everything Has Two Endings”— the title of one of the new poems. Care to say something to this?
Jane: Well, I was born on East 20th St. in New York. I’m a product of the West. A great-great grandfather served as a rabbi in the Civil War. But I tend to think of these things as far more mixed than not. Judeo-Christianity comes after all from a place of many crossroads, the Middle East.
Poetry—good poetry—is non-fundamentalist. It loves both the obvious and the impossible, but leans toward the complicating, unsimplifying perception. “Everything Has Two Endings” is a good example of that mix. In one sense, after all, what does it say that you don’t already know? And are its perceptions Eastern or Western?
Everything Has Two Endings
Everything has two endings—
a horse, a piece of string, a phone call.
Before a life, air.
As silence is not silence, but a limit of hearing.
Even the idea of “two endings” is complicating, because in English “end” has quite a few possible meanings. It can mean the physical edge of something, in which case “two endings” might make sense… until you see that’s not all the poem’s about. “End” can also mean “goal,” or “purpose,” a kind of buried possibility here. It can also mean the conclusion or finish of something, and it’s in the collision of that meaning with the meaning of “edge” that the poem lives. When it comes to narrative comprehension, “two endings” is impossible. There can only be one. The lovers either find one another or don’t, the war is won or lost, the child lives or dies. We do know also, though, that in life, it’s never as simple as that—and that’s what the poem is bringing forward. It’s about something we have to be reminded of, again and again, because it’s just kind of intolerable, isn’t it? Unbearable that the story of a life isn’t simple, or that the two people who’ve had one conversation go away with different understandings and feelings of what it meant; unbearable that we ourselves are just an interruption of whatever the world was before and after us. We look from inside our lives, and can only know what we see from there. But we know the world continues past the reach of our eyes and ears and time. We know there’s always going to be a sound somewhere, even if we can’t hear it. This poem, I just realized, is a kind of fraternal twin to one later in the book, the poem with the naked desire for “more.” The one poem tries to agree to inescapable limitation, the other holds sheer, unmitigated longing.
Brian: And paradox?
Jane: Right, you asked about paradox. I do think it’s central, that all good poems are out of hand and ungraspable, in some way or other. The most recent aspect of poetry I’ve been exploring is paradox, the way paradox and the impossible work in poems, how ubiquitous and enlarging their inclusions are. The simplest metaphor—“the moon is a white cat,” say—is, looked at simply, impossible. The moon is not a cat. Yet how easily our minds expand to let it be one, to allow something new, asleep or prowling, to enter the world, because we’ve agreed to the premise.
You’re just right in what you say about the mix of feelings, how a poem of beauty has at least one foot standing in sorrow. Good poems carry an undertow that pulls them in more than one direction—whatever they are saying, its opposite is there as well. That’s what makes them good. Life is complicated and omnivorous. We want art in our lives because it’s as hungry as life is for the whole story, yet captures that large ungainly story in some cricket-sized cage that can be slipped into a pocket, carried, taken out again. And singing the whole time that it is.
"Poems are machines for questioning preconceived ideas in any case, and any good poem will undermine its own worldview as much as hold it."
Jane: A lot of what I do when I look at poems I love by other people is try to figure out where and how the paradox and undertow are felt. In writing my own, I don’t think about this anywhere near that consciously. Yet these qualities of inner dissension and the multiplicity of the real are primary reasons for writing a poem to begin with—they’re going to be there right from the start, if the words that arrive are poetry at all, and not proclamation. You know, I’m not so sure anyhow about Chesterton’s observation, though it’s an attractive and striking perception about the physical symbols. But Christian mystics speak of “oneness” and the Judeo-Christian tradition is monotheistic; Hinduism is full of wild multiplicities; Zen koans are a banquet of paradox. A sumi-e circle is imperfect, wears the trace of the particular hand and brush, and doesn’t completely close. Any human tradition, I am guessing, will have to include both the smooth and the jagged, the magnet and the explosive, because we ourselves do.To go back to my own poems, I’m always hoping people will read them without any label in mind at all. Awareness is essential in reading poetry, but certain kinds of extraneous awareness can get in the way of seeing what’s there, what isn’t. Though as a reader I find biography interesting, and at times illuminating, my first approach to any poem—my own or another’s— remains faithful to the New Critics’ useful bias: “What’s on the page itself?” It troubles me when my work is hung on a Buddhist coat-rack—nothing in the poems themselves is “Buddhist,” the word Zen does not appear in book or bio notes, and I don’t want ideas clouding readers’ perceptions of what the words themselves say. Poems are machines for questioning preconceived ideas in any case, and any good poem will undermine its own worldview as much as hold it. We die. We long. We love. We misunderstand one another. No story about any of these things is singular, or simple. Hence, we need poems. And poems are human—not Eastern, not Western, just human.
Brian Bouldrey, is the author, most recently, of The Sorrow of the Elves(GemmaMedia, 2010). He has written three nonfiction books Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica (University of Wisconsin Press, September 2007), Monster: Adventures in American Machismo (Council Oak Books), and The Autobiography Box (Chronicle Books); three novels, The Genius of Desire (Ballantine), Love, the Magician (Harrington Park), and The Boom Economy (University of Wisconsin Press), and he is the editor of several anthologies. He is the North American Editor of the Open Door literacy series for GemmaMedia, and teaches writing and literature at Northwestern University.