Q & A: Jane Hirshfield

Does the title invoke sentencings in terms both of sentences meted out in the service of justice and the grammatical sentences written on the page?

It does, though these two meanings pull in rather different directions. One undertow message of any fragmentary poetic structure is that it holds the question, “What can be said at all?” and that’s so in the case of this poem. The “sentencings” of the grammatical kind here are a present-tense action, a reaching toward speech. The poem is testing, looking for an entrance, turning first one doorknob, then another. Read this way, it doesn’t go into any single room of understanding; it makes, by many small expeditions, something like a sound map of the space of a house.

The other reading of “sentencings”—the judicial one—has to do with the poem’s exploration of recollection, awareness, and fate. The relationship between our actual, moment-by-moment, and fundamentally unknowable life and our sense of a fate (some declarable, nameable accounting) is a subject to which it seems I keep coming back. “Fate” is a summarizing idea, a constructed story. Its abstraction lives several elevator floors above the ground level of actual events. We have experiences, we make choices, they matter. But they do not add up to one sum. Summary is not the point of a life, nor are the stories we en-self ourselves by. Something closer to relationship is, and a full response (and responsibility) to the question each moment asks, as it runs through us.


The opening of the poem raises, in its beautiful lines, the question of how memory works. Can you tell us more about how something can be “too perfect to be remembered”? What happens when, in memory, we idealize something—and are these two different things?

We’ve all had the experience of lifting some fantastic stone out of a streambed or off a wet beach, and then finding it later, dry on the shelf, quite plain and dull. “Why is this here?” you wonder, when it catches your eye at all. Some experiences are like that. Their full inhabitance requires the moment in which they lived.

A rock can of course be rinsed, or coated with varnish, and its depths and translucence of color will be restored. It may be that is also what poetry does, in the face of elusive experience—tries to find a way to let an experience’s depths gleam again with some part of their original mystery and meaning, or, as often, to find that glimpse in the first place. But certain experiences are stones that can’t be rewetted. We can only point toward their existence—as this poem does. So I suppose what I am talking about here is rather the opposite of “idealizing.” It is something so evaporative that it can’t even be thought of, only lived. Perfection means, literally, “thoroughly done.” Yet a fire vanishes when its fuel is completely consumed.  


The poem takes note of ways in which we can be blinded by light and also darkness—how we can see, yet also not see; moreover, how too much longing can separate us. The question of distance raised here, made visible in the lines about the way a mountain is seen “from very far or very close,” seems essential not only to the poem, but to a way of thinking that underwrites it. Can you describe this at all in prose?

What a perceptive, impossible question. All I can say is that it has something to do with the way that inhabitance of a particular self sets us, almost inevitably, inside some point of view and how that view changes, depending on position, perspective, emotional state, state of (for lack of a better word) spirit or soul . . . I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling the repercussions of how, in any particular moment, I inhabit my own point of view and my own heart. What softens the harsh edges of a mountain, or of an emotion, is one of two things—either the “distance,” the enlarging perspective, of what in Zen is sometimes called “big mind” (a non-self-centered looking and feeling) or else the closest intimacy, in which all we see is felt as interior, experienced as fragile, newborn, and tender. If there’s no separation, there can be no sharp edge. In the end, that means that distant and near, pure disinterest and pure love, can feel the same, even as they are also of course quite different. Either can lead to the awareness-state of compassion. But the literal also matters. The local mountain, Tamalpais, is visible from my window, far enough away that its ridges and crevices are softened. But if I were looking at any part of it with the eyes of, say, an atomic electron detector, it would appear spacious, open, enterable—and so, equally gentled as it appears when seen from afar. 


Can you say who you think of when you reflect on the image of “putting arms into woolen coat sleeves”?

I suppose some would say it’s terribly old-fashioned, or terribly arrogant, for a person to use “we” in a poem to speak of “us all,” but it’s a concept I still believe in—that certain experiences are universally and profoundly human, and that one of the possible tasks of poetry is to name or evoke them. Here, what I was thinking is this: by adulthood, each of us has our own dead, and hears the murmur of their voices within our lives. If we are lucky, and listen in the right spirit, those voices warm us as their left-behind coats would, rather than rebuke or imprison.

I might, I suppose, have written a different poem, about my late sister’s coats. They are lovely. But I wrote this.


This poem originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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