London Grip Poetry Review – Jane Hirshfield


Poetry review – THE ASKING: Alwyn Marriage reflects on this generous selection from Jane Hirshfield’s work


The Asking: New & Selected Poems 
Jane Hirshfield
Bloodaxe Books 
ISBN 978-1-78037-679-0 
341 pages            £14.99

With a tome of this size and range, anyone unfamiliar with Hirshfield’s work would be something of an expert by the time they arrived at the final page. With five decades of writing and publishing in the bag, not to mention ten well-received poetry collections, Hirshfield has every right to fill a Selected with treasures from the past – even including some poems written in her late teens. It is also pleasing that the collection opens with a section of New Poems (2023), comprising thirty recent pieces.

One of these recent poems, “Today, when I could do nothing”, introduces us to what has been a common theme in Hirshfield’s poetry since the beginning, namely a fascination with and respect for animal life in all its forms.

	Today, when I could do nothing,
	I saved an ant.
	Small black ant, alone,
	crossing a navy cushion,
	moving steadily because that is what it could do.
	It did not look as if it was frightened,
	even while walking my hand,
	which moved it through swiftness and air.

	Ant, alone, without companions,
	whose ant-heart I could not fathom –
	how is your life, I wanted to ask.

	I lifted it, took it outside.

There are no frills and no fuss in Hirshfield’s response to fauna; just minute observation and a vibrant celebration of Nature’s amazing variety. So, in some of her earlier collections, we meet, among many other creatures, racoons (“Invocation”), horses (“After work”), foxes (‘with cream-dipped tail and red-fire legs doused watery brown’ (“Inspiration”) and moths (“To drink”).

The other noticeable strand in her poetry is less easy to define, being both philosophical and contemplative. This may well stem either from a religious mind-set or, more specifically, from her Buddhist practice. Whichever it is, it gives many of the poems a deep and pleasing resonance:

	I think it was from the animals
	that St Francis learned
	it is possible to cast oneself
	on the earth's good mercy and live.	

In “Silence: an assay”, she reflects on Einstein:

	Einstein called time what stops everything
	from happening at once. Silence stops everything
	from shouting at once.	

And in “Theology”, she offers a beautiful description of prayer:

        A border collie's preference is to do anything entirely,
	with the whole attention. This Simone Weil called prayer.

Every now and then, this philosophical approach can appear slightly convoluted, as in the poems “Perception is a kind of attentiveness”, “The heart as origami” and in one of the new poems, “I asked to be lush, to be green”, which ends with the line ‘a tree not wet to the touch is wet to the living’ which does make sense, but needs a little unpacking. However, by far the majority of the poetry is both accessible and perceptive.

One of Hirshfield’s interesting and charming devices is the inclusion of several series of short poetic aphorisms under the title of Pebbles: Five Pebbles (New Poems, page 17), Ten Pebbles (After, page 207), Thirteen Pebbles (Come, Thief, page 238), Nine Pebbles (The Beauty, page 274) and Ten Pebbles (Ledger, page 316). Some of these short poems, reminiscent of Japanese haiku are worth quoting in full:

      Global Warming
      When his ship first came to Australia,
      Cook wrote, the natives
      continued fishing, without looking up.
      Unable, it seemed, to fear what was too large to be comprehended. 
						(Ten Pebbles).

      The Cloudy Vase
      Past time,
      I threw the flowers out,
      washed out
      the cloudy vase.

      How easily
      the old clearness
      like a practiced tiger,
      back inside it.  
						(Thirteen Pebbles).

       Away from Home, I thought of the Exiled Poets
       Away from home,
       I read the exiled poets –
       Ovid, Brecht.

      Then set my books that night
      near the foot of the bed.

      All night pretended they were the cat.

      Not once
      did I wake her.  
						(Nine Pebbles).


     Library Book with Many Precisely Turned-down Corners
     I unfold carefully the thoughts of one who has come before me,
     the way a listening dog's ears
     may be seen lifting
     to some sound beyond its person's quite understanding.  
						(Ten Pebbles).

For a poet with such an understanding of humanity, it will come as no surprise that humour erupts in some of the poems. In one of them, it is a wry philosophical reflection:

	 Why Bodhidharma Went to Motel 6
        "Where is your home?" the interviewer asked him.
       "No, no," the interviewer said, thinking it a problem of translation,
       "when you are where you actually live?"
        Now it was his turn to think, “Perhaps the translation?" 

But in another example, Hirshfield launches into a delicious, almost slap-stick scene of chasing a recalcitrant chicken to put her away for the night:

      "The foxes will have you," I told her.
      She scratched the ground,
      found a late insect to feast on,
      set her clipped beak to peck at my shoe.
      Reached for, she ran.
      Ran from the ramp
      I herded her towards as well.
      I tried raccoons, then cold.
      I tried stew.
      She found a fresh seed. 
      Her legs were white and clean
      and appeared very strong.
      We ran around the coop
      that way a long time,
      she seeming delighted, I flapping.
      Darkness, not I, brought her in.    

There are many instances of Hirshfield’s sharp observation, such as the picture of a young French Horn player:

      The boy playing his intricate horn in Mahler's Fifth,
      in the gaps between playing,
      turns it and turns it, dismantles a section, 
      shakes from it the condensation
      of human passage. He is perhaps twenty.  
					("French Horn")

And again

      ... at the centre of many great works
      is found a preserving dispassion,
      like the vanishing point of quattrocento perspective,
      or the tiny packets of desiccant enclosed
      in a box of new shoes or seeds.  
					("In Praise of Coldness").

The threat of the terrible potential consequences of climate change is never far from Hirshfield’s work; and she does not let us, or herself, off the hook in terms of who is responsible. We are all implicated:

      the numbers unseeably rise –

      305 ppm, 317, 390, 400

      shin of high granite ticks snow-less the compound fracture

      I who wrote this

      like the old painters
      sign this:

      JH fecit.

This new collection takes its title from the last line of one of the new poems: ‘don’t despair of this falling world, not yet / didn’t it give you the asking’. The book is, as one would expect of a Bloodaxe publication, meticulously and beautifully produced, even down to what, in such a large body of work, is a particularly helpful inclusion of an index.

The van Gogh painting of A Pair of boots that graces my edition of the book, is apposite, showing both the beauty of a battered and worn boot and, beside it, the underneath of the boot, with nails and intact sole – footwear that is clearly meant to stand up to the demands of hard work.