Ledger by Jane Hirshfield (Bloodaxe 2020)
By her own account, Jane Hirshfield’s latest collection Ledger is ‘a book of stock-taking, a registration both of the personal and of the grievous era all our lives are now visibly part of’. A good number of thoughtful and incisive readers gathered online on an autumnal night in early September to share responses to this new work, which adds to a long list of much-loved and lauded publications, that include anthologies, translations and essays as well as her own poetry collections in both the U.S. and the U.K. Her award citation for her 2004 Academy of American Poets’ Fellowship, summarised her work like this:
Hirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature. Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield’s poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.
Our reading of Ledger tended to agree, referencing her apparent simplicity, her distinctive combination of the ‘mysterious and commonplace’, the acceptance of paradox, balancing the negative as well as the positive (often embedded in the language and syntax itself). People appreciated her ‘thing’ poems in particular, where, for example, a bowl or a ladder or a vest (U.S. for waistcoat) might stand for itself but also lead to many imaginative and profound insights.
To misplace the pocket
of touching the walls at Auschwitz
would seem impossible.
It is not.
‘Vest’, p. 18
Inevitably, the world’s suffering is never far away in a book that pays such close attention to How It Is at this particular time in which we live. The violence of war and pressure of environmental crisis – climate change, oil spills, mass extinction – appear again and again as subject and subtext, image and allusion. Human beings are the ‘Burning Ones’, who ‘they’ will say ‘did not-enough’. Jane Hirshfield’s poems are rarely rhetorical – she believes ‘poems oughtn’t bully’. Instead of persuading or blaming, she uses her powers of discrimination to trace cause and effect, bring light to the complexity of a contemporary society facing ‘the catastrophe of the biosphere and what feels like a breakdown of the basic social contract—that we care for one another and that we care for future beings’ well-being’.
We noted the graceful ordering of the poems across the collection, moving between personal and political, spiritual and secular so subtly that they become the same transparent speaking and listening voice. Her use of a variety of forms brings texture to the book, an aesthetic and ethics that ask the reader to slow down and pay close attention. The sinuous non-linear syntax also invites the reader to enter the poem as a participant rather than as a passive consumer, so reading the book becomes a collaboration, an exchange, as in any animate relationship. She stays open to taking herself and us by surprise:
What did not surprise enough:
my daily expectation that anything would continue,
and then that so much did continue, when so much did not.
‘I wanted to be surprised.’ p.16
Repetition patterns the poems, at times creating a sense of litany, in accord with the tradition of spiritual inquiry, not unlike St Augustine’s Confessions, one reader suggested. Intense self-scrutiny figures in a suite of poems titled ‘My Doubt’, ‘My Contentment’, ‘My Hunger’, ‘My Longing’, ‘My Dignity’, ‘My Glasses’, ‘My Wonder’, culminating in the sorrowful blank page of ‘My Silence’. This precedes a sequence attempting to respond to the dying of a longtime friend, each poem beginning ‘Little soul’ – her friend’s soul, her own soul, everyone’s soul captured in Emperor Hadrian’s deathbed address, ‘animula’.
This point led to a discussion about her work’s potential for obliqueness. Although, we don’t always know what’s going on, most people were happy to accept the mystery, trusting the language and letting the imagination respond from a place of humility, not-knowing-everything. Jane Hirshfield’s commitment to telling the truth includes what we can’t account for as well as what we can. She has written eloquently in her essays about ‘Hiddenness’ and ‘Indirection’ (in Ten Windows, 1998, and Nine Gates, 2015, respectively).
Leaving something inexplicit or unsaid in a poem risks misunderstanding. What a reader does with invisible ink is his or her mirror, revealing that reader’s mind, predispositions, and heart. ‘My Silence’ is an extreme case. But a poem that tells everything, instructs completely, would be also unbearably plodding. Poems exist to hold what cannot be said in more ordinary speech.
…I’m more and more wanting to trust the reader to hear, to understand, the unsaid thing. Japanese haiku, read rightly, are built on that foundation of tact and trust and active collaboration.
…The idea of humility has become increasingly central to my sense of a correct navigation of our current age. To think the unsayable can be said would be hubris. Yet something, somehow, manages to be said, into the brutalities and the largenesses of existence.
These quotes are all from a wonderful interview in the Paris Review, from an email exchange with the Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky, which is definitely worth a read. People also mentioned that there were interesting YouTube clips of Jane Hirshfield reading some of these poems, including ‘Spell to Be Said Against Hatred’ after the shooting of George Floyd.
As this was the last meeting of the current programme, we ended our session with an agreement to gather again in November to discuss how it’s been for everyone and what we might like to make happen in the future, if these sessions can continue next year. Please bring book recommendations, new ways of approaching ‘Reading the Climate’ and anything else you can think of. So, I’ll look forward to seeing you on Tuesday 10thNovember.