PF detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Beach Scene, Guernsey (Children by the Sea in Guernsey) - 1883;


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October 2009


Jane Hirshfield is the author of six books of poems, most recently After (HarperCollins, 2006; Bloodaxe Books (UK), 2006), which was named a “best book of 2006” by The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and England’s Financial Times; it was also a Poetry Book Society Choice and T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist finalist in its UK edition. Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins, 2001) was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. Other poetry collections include Alaya (Quarterly Review of Literature Series, 1982), Of Gravity & Angels (Wesleyan University Press, 1988), The October Palace (HarperCollins, 1994), and The Lives of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1997). Hirshfield is also the author of a now-classic book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997), and editor and co-translator of three collections of poetry by women writers of the past, Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (HarperCollins, 1994), The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Komachi and Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Japanese Court (Vintage Classics, 1990), and Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems (Beacon Press, 2004, with Robert Bly).

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Japanese print.


Leaving the October Palace | In a Net of Blue and Gold
Pyracantha and Plum | When Your Life Looks Back


Leaving the October Palace

In ancient Japan, to travel
meant always away—
toward the capital, one spoke only of return.
As these falling needles and leaves speak of return,
their long labors of green tired finally into gold,
the desire that remembered them into place
prepared at last to let go.
Though not for want of faithfulness—
all that once followed the sun still follows it now,
as it turns away.
The courtiers assemble their carriages, fold up their robes.
By daybreak, the soundless mountains bow under snow.

From: The October Palace, HarperCollins, 1994


In a Net of Blue and Gold

When the moored boat lifts, for its moment,
out of the water like a small cloud—
this is when I understand.
It floats there, defying the stillness to break,
its white hull doubled on the surface smooth as glass.
A minor miracle, utterly purposeless.
Even the bird on the bow-line takes it in stride,
barely shifting his weight before resuming
whatever musing it is birds do;
and the fish continue their placid, midday
truce with the world, suspended a few feet below.
I catch their gleam, the jeweled, reflecting scales,
small dragons guarding common enough treasure.
And wonder how, bound to each other as we are
in a net of blue and gold,
We fail so often, in such ordinary ways.

From: Of Gravity & Angels, Wesleyan University Press, 1988


Pyracantha and Plum

Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree,
spring blossoms tender, hopeful, on another.
The view from this window
much as it was ten years ago, fifteen.
Yet it seems this morning
A self-portrait both clearer and darker,
as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel
had walked through the garden, looking hard.

From: After, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006


When Your Life Looks Back

When your life looks back—
as it will, at itself, at you—what will it say?

Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool.
Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from.
Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many.

Your life will carry you as it did always,
with ten fingers and both palms,
with horizontal ribs and upright spine,
with its filling and emptying heart,
that wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return.
You gave it. What else could you do?

Immersed in air or in water.
Immersed in hunger or anger.
Curious even when bored.
Longing even when running away.

“What will happen next?”—
the question hinged in your knees, your ankles,
in the in-breaths even of weeping.
Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in.
Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face.
No back of the world existed,
no unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for.

This, your life had said, its only pronoun.
Here, your life had said, its only house.
Let, your life had said, its only order.

And did you have a choice in this? You did—

Sleeping and walking,
the horses around you, the mountains around you,
the buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts.
Those of your own kind around you—

A few times, you stood on your head.
A few times, you chose not to be frightened.
A few times, you held another beyond any measure.
A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure.

Mortal, your life will say,
as if tasting something delicious, as if in envy.
Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.

First appeared in “American Poetry Review,”
September/October 2009 issue: Vol.38/No.5