Fall is here and our poetry guru and regular contributor Amy Pence is back after taking the summer off to travel.  (Lucky duck!)  This month she brings us a review of the newest work by Jane Hirshfield.  

Steal Away with Jane: A Review of Come, Thief

I imagine that Jane Hirshfield lives in a stone cottage overlooking a gray-blue reflecting pond (where she can reflect undisturbed and without constantly checking her email) or perhaps she is ensconced in an ashram in a complicated yoga position.  From her poetry, you wouldn’t think that she ever sits in traffic, charges an endless number of hand-held devices, or sorts through a sticky recycling bin.  This is a poetry of rain, plum blossoms, salt, olives—and loss.  You know, all the elementals.  The closest Hirshfield gets to our post-modern world today is a “plastic container” in the poem “Perishable, It Said.”

A devotee of her instructive book of essays on writing, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, I frankly want to BE Jane Hirshfield—at least during that hour a day when I’m considering meditating or considering that I might just meditate on writing a poem (Hirshfield would never go through these involutions, now would she?).  In that Jane-moment, perhaps my stilled mind and the things of the world might collude to yield their little wisdoms.  If you look to Mary Oliver’s poetry for solace and for startling lines, then Hirshfield’s vision will offer you an even finer attunement.  That she is a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, a translator of many female Japanese poets, and an anthologist of sacred poetry, is no surprise; Hirshfield’s poetry elucidates the transitory.

To me, however, Come, Thief, her eighth collection, marks a slight shift in tone from her previous books.  The poems are more mysterious, darker, and marked by unknown losses.  Often, just her titles carry the weight: “The Dark Hour,” “Three-Legged Blues,” “Heat and Desperation,” and “Alzheimer’s” are a few examples.

“Sentencings,” my favorite in the book, was also published in Poetry magazine. The poem unveils the world in flashes, each stanza illuming how life is full of attachments, longing, entrances and exits, and the subtleties of our suffering, the Buddhist concept of samsara:

A thing too perfect to be remembered:

stone beautiful only when wet.


Blinded by light or black cloth—

so many ways

not to see others suffer.

As if putting arms into woolen coat sleeves,

we listen to the murmuring dead


Any point of a circle is its start:

desire forgoing fulfillment to go on desiring.

Like many of the poems in this collection, “Sentencings” traces the foggy outlines that we might see in a Chinese painting, yet the details, diffused still lifes, evoke the universal.  I see the way we turned away from the hooded Abu Ghraib figure perched in mock electrocution in the second stanza and further into the poem recognize the feeling of loss as we put on the coats of our own private dead.

What Hirshfield does best is create lush imagistic poems that we want to rest in and that waver inside us, like the calligrapher’s stark and watery lines.  In “French Horn,” the young musicians are as perfect in one fine moment as the plum tree outside her window.

…He is perhaps twenty.

Later he takes his four bows, his face deepening red,

while a girl hold a viola’s spruce wood and maple

in one half-opened hand and looks at him hard.

Let others clap.

These two, their ears still ringing, hear nothing.

Not the shouts of bravo, bravo,

not the timpanic clamor inside their bodies.

As the plum blossoms do not hear the bee

nor taste themselves turned into storable honey

by that sumptuous disturbance.

In Nine Gates, Hirshfield writes:  “the writer reaches by means of language into the outer world—the world of things, and also of words themselves and their storehoused wisdom—in order to question and discover the texture and substance of being.”  It may not be popular to say so, but I still look to poetry for just this.

And of her living situation—I’m not far off, according to the storehoused wisdom of Wikipedia:

“She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area in a small white house surrounded by fruit trees, a vegetable garden, lavender, and roses.”  I’m sure there’s a pond nearby.

– Amy Pence, Regular Contributor

Amy Pence’s poetry collection The Decadent Lovely is available from www.mainstreetrag.com or from her website www.amypence.com.