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After: Poems Paperback – February 20, 2007
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About the Author
The author of five previous poetry collections and a book of essays, Jane Hirshfield has been a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and England’s T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, and she is the winner of the Poetry Center Book Award, the California Book Award, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, and multiple volumes of The Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies.
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Anyway, I loved these poems. I used soup above advisedly. You will find more than a couple references in these poems to soup, and, it seems to me, that when a poet repeats images/objects you might want to be alert that, for instance here, soup may be somewhat more than veggies and broth. Along similar lines, Ms Hirshfield will introduce you here to a variety of dogs: real, imagined, past, present, dream, rose-quartz colored, and at least once (in a title) metaphoric. Ms. Hirshfield has written lovingly in "Nine Gates" (her marvelous set of poetic essays on poetry) about James Wright's "messenger angels". It seems, perhaps, that her dogs are sometimes cast in this role in this collection. You might watch/listen for them.
More than one observer has noted the sheen of sadness that overlays much of "After". I think sometimes that the "zen-ness" of these poems leans them in that direction. I'll leave it to more qualified/knowledgeable reviewers to deal properly with that, but it does seem that zen can tend toward the somber. Then, too, it could just be that Ms. Hirshfield is particularly attuned to the bitter-sweetness that life doles out whether we want it or not. Her (along with Mariko Aratani) surpassingly, inexhaustibly wonderful translations of the tanka of the Heian era poets Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu ("The Ink Dark Moon") are full to overflowing with the ineffable transcience of love and life. No doubt that is present throughout the originals, but the deftness of the translations could not have originated in a non-kindred soul.
Still there is, if not great joy, great beauty in these poems. "Beneath the Snow, the Badger's Steady Breathing" ends with "- Sharp starlight coming all the way down to the snow." In her "Assay" on "Translucence" she's following that rose-quartz colored dream dog thusly: "A shadow opened then folded behind her./ I followed as if past a gate latch/ sliding closed of its own silent weight." The already noted "blue green shoulder of the vase" and, possibly the most beautiful image in the collection in "To Judgment: An Assay" in a line eschewing the very judgment of beautiful: a "dawn the color of winter butter -".
There is here, too, the quietly enigmatic. Try the opening poem "After Long Silence". Read closely and ask what "thought" is untranslatable and where, if thoughts start with words, do they go after? Is silence itself an answer to both questions and if so is "after" "post" or "pursuit"? Also, as already noted, "Red Scarf" which notes it's "for L.B. (1950-2004)". Whose scarf is it? Ms Hirshfield's or L.B.'s? Doesn't the "inconceivable before" (with before in italics) change considerably depending? All that's sure is the loss, the grief, the missing.
Two more thoughts and I'll let this go. I used the term quietly above and that's a characteristic of the entire collection. One of the quietest and one of my favorite poems (not likely to be everyone's) is "Sheep's Cheese" which I'd like to quote most of
In the cellar, sheep's milk cheeses
Once a week, a man comes to turn them.
Sixty pounds lifted like child after child,
lain back re-wrapped
The wheels are only sheep's milk, not ripening souls.
He sings no lullabye to them. But his arms know the weight.
I find this poem full of gentleness, quietness, tenderness; of ritual, of steadfastness; of the love found in certain labors; of the uncommon cosmic found in the most common of objects. And it's probably full of quite a bit more than that. Surely, though, it and the rest of these poems are Ms Hirshfield's wheels and, while they, too, are mere objects - her arms also know the weight.
And finally, the last three lines of the last poem are a kind of zen conclusion to the story of life played out within them. While the lines are addressed specifically, I think they can be read more generally: "Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,/ you slept, you awakened./ Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons." Others have noted these lines, but sometimes stopped before that last line with its heat prepared roasted chestnuts and its cold ripened persimmons, one sweet, the other tart - or slightly bitter, if you will.
Much poetry is written about itself, about art. This poetry is written about life and reading it will enrich your own in quiet but generous ways. If its vision is slightly canted toward the dark, yet it is, as Ms. Hirshfield herself describes in "Pyracantha and Plum": "a self portrait both clearer and darker,/ as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel/ had walked through the garden, looking hard."