The Beauty: Poems by Jane Hirshfield 2015

Hirshfield is a much-heralded contemporary American poet and essayist.  Graduating in the first class of women from Princeton, she spent the next eight years in a Zen monastery accumulating life experience and wisdom before embarking on a full time career as a poet.  A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, this was her eighth book of poems, and a wonderful one it is.

Keeping my omnipresent sharpened #2 pencil at my side and a piece of scratch paper, I quickly realized that I was highlighting a stanza, phrase, or line in nearly every poem and accumulating a list of poems to copy to the Poetry Tree which began to read like the table of contents. They are all so wonderful.  Brief, pithy, surprising, compelling, the poems often led me to an ‘Ah’, a  chuckle, or a return to the first line to experience the poem a second time.  Mostly brief, they deal with the paradoxical themes of the beauty and brevity of life as well as its cruelty and random grief. The ‘self’ as a product of the DNA and its millions of ways of sorting itself into an individual are frequent topics.  Curiosity, wonder, a sophisticated understanding of modern science, and a Zen-like Koan approach characterize her work while the reader is left to read, re-read, and ponder the brilliant wordsmithing and its intent.  Here’s a portion of a poem entitled ‘My Proteins’:  “Nine percent of my cells, they have discovered,/are not my own person,/they are other beings inside me./ As ninety-six percent of my life is not my life.” And here are some beautiful words from “My Sandwich”:  “So many things/you’d not have thought of/until they were given./  Even the simple—-/a cottage cheese sandwich,/a heron’s contractible neck./  You eat. You look./Then you look back and it’s over./  This life. This flood—/unbargained for as lasting love was—-/of lasting oddness.”

I could easily have quoted 25 more wonderful poems but you get the idea.  Here’s Hirshfield on her poetry: “Poetry, for me, is an instrument of investigation and a mode of perception, a way of knowing and feeling both self and world…I am interested in poems that find a clarity without simplicity; in a way of thinking and speaking that does not exclude complexity but also does not obscure; in poems that know the world in many ways at once—heart, mind, voice, and body.”

If you love poetry, read this book.  If you have been avoiding poetry, read this book.