"Attentiveness," writes Jane Hirshfield in the preface to her collection of essays, "only deepens what it regards," and if Hirshfield's opus is about anything, it is about this power of attentiveness and the resultant clarification of being. Her case for poetry is that words are a path into concentration, a state that is penetrating, unified, focused, yet also permeable and open; that writing begins when willed effort drops away, when the writer (and then the reader) enters the flow, the effortless effort. Jane Hirshfield's poems are records of such attentiveness, intimacy, immersion, the self meeting the Self.
Hirshfield's work came to national prominence beginning in the mid-1980s. During this time, she lived in residence at Yaddo, McDowell, and Djerassi, and was awarded both Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships. Her poems written in free verse, American diction, have appeared in journals from Agni to ZYZZYVA, and in all notables between.
In first grade, the poet wrote on a large sheet of unlined paper, "I want to be a writer when I grow up," and, fatefully, the first book she ever bought, at age nine, was a collection of haiku. An undergraduate at Princeton, she created a dual major: creative writing and literature in translation, and though she won the poetry contest of Nation for work written while still an undergraduate, she did not pursue an M.F.A. Instead, she began to study Zen, entering an eight-year monastic practice, and including three years at Tassajara, a rural Zen community in Northern California.
After leaving formal Zen training, Hirshfield published two collections of poetry, Alaya (1982) and Of Gravity & Angels (1988). She also returned to work begun as an undergraduate, the translation of Japanese women's poetry. The poet's third collection, The October Palace (1994), evoked this description from Women's Review of Books : "These imagistically precise, celebratory poems reveal the interconnections between interior and exterior worlds," and this comment, "A radiant and passionate collection," from the New York Times Book Review. These poems owe much to Hirshfield's commitment to both Buddhist meditation (a student of Zen since 1974) and to her practice of moving poetry forward with the fundamental energy of passion. The opening section, "What the Heart Wants," announces this collection's deep structure. Titles praise presence and mutability, the serene and the sensual: "Each Step," "History as the Painter Bonnard," "Floor," "A Sweetening All Around Me As It Falls." These opening lines from "The House in Winter" reveal the writer's rhetorical stance, musicality, image and voice, the transforming arc of attention: "Here in the year's late tide-wash, / a corner cupboard suddenly wavers / in low-flung sunlight, / cupboard never quite visible before. / Its jars of last summer's peaches / have come into their native gold—/ not the sweetness of last summer, / but today's, / fresh from the tree of winter. / The mouth swallows peach, and says gold."
Jane Hirshfield has been honored with a Pushcart Prize, the Commonwealth Club of California's Poetry Medal, the Poetry Center Book award, and, with the publication of The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komanchi and Isumi Shikibu (1988), Columbia University's Translation Center award. In all her work, the poet pays tribute to her colleagues (translator Mariko Arantani, editor Hugh Van Dusen), her teachers (Lewis Hyde, Ono no Komanchi, Gary Snyder), her muses (Giotto, Novalis, Wu Feng, cucumber, egret, poppy), and "those whose voices have been lost." To read her poems is to encounter not only the poet but the lives and hearts of others.
Hirshfield's inclusiveness, her spiritual and intellectual reach, led her to edit the anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994). A record of intimacy with the sacred, this book includes texts from Enheduanna (the earliest identified author of either sex in world literature), Makeda, Queen of Sheba, the Tamil saint Antal, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Mirabai, Anna Akhmatova, Nelly Sachs; each text is a reminder that the numinous does not discriminate, that spiritual experience is fundamental to human life. In her essay "The Question of Originality" (from Nine Gates), Hirshfield writes, "Originality requires an aptitude for exile," and the ability to become invisible, "to offer oneself to the Other." She reminds us that it is no accident that we speak of a body of knowledge because language begins in the facts of physical life. Like Yeats, she believes "When I write it is myself that I remake."
Lives of the Heart (l997), with its 80 poems, is surely blueprint and map, a daybook of the poet's remaking. A sequence of 20 opens the volume: "Secretive Heart," "Heart Stopped in Panic and Grace," "Heart Pressing Further." Among the 80, as well, a series of spells, "Spell for Inviting-in the New Soul," poems that celebrate the concrete and illusory now, "A Thinking Stillness," and, as always, Hirshfield's lyric reckonings, "White Curtain in Sunlight and Wind." The reader recognizes in these word-journeys that the real activity of poetry, as Hirshfield says, is "to discover wholeness and create wholeness, including the wholeness of the fragmentary and the broken" as in "A Month of Days and Nights"—"Days that could have / been anything, / nights that could have been anything, / turned with the leaves. / Then, someone played / the piano—/ halting, unpracticed, and perfect. / I listened to pity / and lowered my head in shame. / Ashamed, not at my tears, / or even at what has been wasted, / but to have been dry-eyed so long."
Published in the same year, 1997, but written during the previous decade, Hirshfield's book of essays on poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, is described as, "doing for poetry what Pound intended to do at the turn of the century: through juxtaposition of the familiar and the unknown, it reinvigorates our thinking about the possibilities of the art." The nine essays of this volume explore particular strategies of language and thinking, the ways a poem can illumine the circuitous passage between the inner and outer worlds and thus awaken consciousness. These essays are not abstract, not essays about criticism, but writing discoveries shared with the reader: "Metaphor isn't embellishment; its way of thinking came first and was followed by abstract thought." "Freedom from the words of the original combined with a deep love of its words lies at the heart of translation." "No matter how the reader (or writer) concentrates, a poem can never be completely entered or known." "It is the task of the writer to become permeable and transparent; to become, in the words of Henry James, a person on whom nothing is lost." The poet, Jane Hirshfield, is just such a writer.
Atlantic Unbound (1997). LJ (1997). Ploughshares (Spring 1998).