Q & A: Jane Hirshfield
Like “Sentencings,” this poem is concerned with the griefs of others, as well as how separate we can feel from each other. Is gazing at something beautiful like the moon a distraction from these things, or a way of connecting with them?
Except at dawn or sunset, it’s rare (for an urban person, anyhow) to notice exactly where the sun is in the sky. But I, at least, am always aware of the moon and its moving. There are many Japanese poems that speak of two people looking at the moon from different places. That captures well how what is very distant can also connect. And alteration and reflection and the unlikely grace of luminosity in the dark are so deeply a part of experiencing the moon that I think it’s almost impossible to see it and feel only: “big far-off rock.”
Real beauty, for me, is never a distraction. If it were, then it’s not beauty—it’s prettiness, or decor. If some sting of death-knowledge or transience is not present, beauty turns saccharine, or simplistic, and is no longer beauty. Wallace Stevens put it unsurpassably well: “Death is the mother of beauty.”
How might a Sonoma fire be different from a fire that occurs in another place? Or are all fires equally beautiful and dangerous?
I suppose this is a case where the New Critics’s approach to poetry fails me, or I’ve failed it. That is, a little biographical knowledge here is useful—I live in Marin County. Sonoma’s the next county over, to the north and west. In the summer of 2008, when much of California was burning, there were no fires in Marin, but there was one in Sonoma. So “Sonoma Fire,” for me, means a fire that is close but not so close as to be an immediate danger. As in “Sentencings,” it’s a question of distance, of how our experience of a thing or event is altered by where we stand in relation to it. Immediate smoke is thick and blocks the moon almost completely. From farther off, smoke deepens both sun and moon to a strangely moving redness.
If you are Oedipus, putting out your own eyes, or Antigone mourning her brother, there is no beauty in it, only pain. But if you are in their company two millennia later, brought there by the words of Sophocles or Euripides, these terrible griefs become beauty. In Yeats’s “Easter, 1916,” you can see the transformation of personal grief into the grieving of a community, transmuted by art: “A terrible beauty is born.”
To make art means standing a little outside the furnace. Gold, or clay, or stories can go into the furnace and be transformed. People? No. When I began to say this poem at readings, I found myself prefacing it with an apology to anyone in the room who may have known fire in a less distant way.
That’s the poem’s bitter admission—if we find fire, or tragedy, beautiful, it is because we ourselves have been, for the moment, spared.