Kitchen Ants and Everyday Epiphanies

For Jane Hirshfield, every action is a form of judgment.
While she believes the poet doesn’t exist outside of her writing, Jane Hirshfield manages to get around. From a friendship with Czeslaw Milosz to living in a Zen Monastery Cynthia Haven writes about the circumstances that have shaped Hirshfield’s work.

Writing is a task of patience—and the trials take many forms. Poet Jane Hirshfield endured a small one in 1987, in a way too seemingly commonplace to inspire a poem.

She had just returned to her home in Marin County, California, from a month at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York. Her plan was to resume work in her Mill Valley studio in solitary contemplation.

It was just the place for it: Hirshfield’s white cottage, where she has now lived for 22 years, is set back from a winding road behind an inconspicuous wooden gate. The house is surrounded by a lush garden filled with wisteria, forget-me-nots, roses, agapanthus, jasmine, and fruit trees.

An idyll—but, that day, not for long. As Hirshfield worked, the tranquility was disturbed by the uninflected, mechanical plinking of a piano by a neighbor’s child, who had obviously been frog-marched to the piano bench and made to practice. The notes were “loud, distinct, / deliberate as a camel’s walk through sand.”

“I couldn’t ignore it, and I couldn’t work, so the only thing left was to pay attention to it,” recalled Hirshfield. And out of that attentiveness came “Justice Without Passion,” her first poem to win a Pushcart Prize:

For him now, all is dispassion, a simple putting in place;
and so, giving equal weight to each mark in his folded-back book,
bending his head towards the difficult task,
he is like a soldier or a saint: blank-faced, and given wholly
to an obedience he does not need to understand.
Initially, Hirshfield didn’t know what the poem was about, but found her theme a few lines later when she described the boy as “even-handed.” The term—used more often for matters of justice—brought to mind the Congressional hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, which dominated the news that autumn.

As she listened to the handsome child with the unknowable future, playing “only for playing’s sake . . . ,” she understood that there is no justice in music or beauty.
. . . he learns the ancient laws—that human action is judgment,
each note struggling with the rest.
That justice lacking passion fails, betrays.
For Hirshfield, concerns about judgment, certainty, and human agency have been a pulse running through her life and her poems: do we have any ability to truly affect one another, or are we helpless, unable to do more than witness each other’s suffering? When Hirshfield writes, “human action is judgment,” she points out that true impartiality is illusory: each decision we make is necessarily a call on the people and on the situations we see around us; each moment is a kind of Judgment Day. Yet how much fairness can we have—how much “reality” do we even see? The playing field of human fates is notoriously uneven. Birth itself predestines us to certain ends and is often a condemnation for a crime we did not commit.

“To be born into one culture, country, or family, and not into another, is so great a portion of fate,” said Hirshfield. “Even for the lucky ones, there is really only the smallest space to wedge change into a life. To be a child living in Darfur now means to have no chance at all, to be entirely at the mercy. We, here in America, have so little control over what happens to us . . . most people on this earth have even less. It is heartbreaking to ponder, and I’ve noticed that such questions keep returning for me, coming in through the crevices of the poems over years.”

Hirshfield’s newest collection, After, continues exploring the interplay of these themes in “Those Who Cannot Act,” a poem that notes the suffering of helpless bystanders in great tragedies. In “Envy: An Assay,” she comments, “Your fate is to be yourself, both punishment and crime.”

Yet After is paradoxically a tribute to human agency—the lives that have touched and been touched by Hirshfield. For example, “To Judgment: An Assay” considers that:
You change a life
as eating an artichoke changes the taste
of whatever is eaten after.
The title After refers to a time period, Hirshfield says, filled with many deaths: her father’s, her sister’s, her friends Czeslaw and Carol Milosz’s, those of others in her circle, and of the September 11th attacks and the ensuing response. “I wrote this book during a tsunami of deaths, disappearances, losses. For me, it’s a book of elegies—the black thread of death runs through it.”

And what that black thread stitches together is moments of experience, of memory, of connection—whether with people she has loved, or a Chinese poet read by a window, or a badger breathing beneath the snow, or a persistent woodpecker. Hirshfield’s empathy seeks out the small—in one poem, three ants on a kitchen shelf. Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz wrote in an introduction to Uwaznosc, a Polish translation of a selection of Hirshfield’s poems, “The subject of her poetry is our ordinary life among other people and our continuing encounter with everything Earth brings us: trees, flowers, animals, and birds. Much depends on whether we can treasure each moment in this way, and whether we are able to respond to cats, dogs, and horses with a friendliness equal to that we bring to people. The sensuality of her poetry equally illuminates the great Buddhist virtue of ‘mindfulness.’” Not surprisingly, Hirshfield’s book was a best seller in Poland.

Hirshfield’s long friendship with Milosz, Berkeley’s Polish bard, began about the time she wrote “Justice Without Passion.” Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass and his wife, Brenda Hillman, both Berkeley poets, invited her to an Angel Island picnic for about 60 people. Hillman encouraged Hirshfield to approach Milosz and his wife, Carol, telling her, “no one ever talks to Czeslaw and Carol—they’re too intimidated.”

Hirshfield and Milosz, who are generations apart, clicked. It was an unlikely pairing: Hirshfield had spent three years in her early twenties in a Zen monastery in California and still describes herself as a practicing Buddhist; Milosz, an anguished but practicing Catholic, had flirted with Manichaean heresies. But uncommon affinities united them: The Dostoevskian theme of Milosz’s poetry—in Hirshfield’s words, “the complicity of everyone in what happens to us”—accorded with Hirshfield’s thoughts on how “human action is judgment” and the ways in which we all inescapably affect each other.

Milosz, in turn, was fascinated by Hirshfield’s Zen outlook. As he wrote in his introduction to her poems, “As a citizen of California for many years, I have been aware of the importance of Buddhism to many of its poets. I must openly admit that I do not completely trust many of their adaptations of the great Eastern religions. However, Buddhism is primarily for me a profound empathy for the suffering of all living beings. This is what I find in the poetry of Jane Hirshfield, and why I praise her.” Another affinity then: a preoccupation with suffering.

Hirshfield has long acknowledged Milosz’s influence on her work, and After confirms this: the rhythm of many of the poems is close to prose, and she toys with the “more spacious forms” that Milosz longed for when he was inspired by the pages of Whitman. The collection is peppered as well with short prose poems: brief epigrammatic poems called “pebbles,” philosophical poems, and her “assays.” But the appreciation is most overtly expressed in “Letter to C.”, her elegy for Milosz, who died in 2004 at age 93, and the one for Carol Milosz on the facing page.

Carol Milosz, a former Emory University dean, died in 2002, within weeks of a late diagnosis of leukemia. At the memorial mass in Berkeley, Hirshfield remembers Milosz looking for a moment uncharacteristically lost and bewildered, before his lifelong composure and erectness of posture returned, the posture of a man who had survived inconceivable losses and lived not only to bear them, but to bear witness. “You must write a poem about Carol,” he urged her. “I will write many poems about Carol; you must write a poem about Carol.”

She did. “The Bell Zygmunt,” published in the Atlantic Monthly and included in After, recalls first the legendary 500-year-old bell in Kraków’s Wawel Cathedral, kissed by new brides for good luck and rung only on important occasions, seen on Hirshfield’s first visit to Kraków in 2000.

Hirshfield then moves the poem to the Bay Area hospital where Carol had returned for treatment of what was then thought to be the cascading complications of an unexplained anemia:
I put my lips near the place a tube went into
the back of one hand.
The kiss—as if it knew what I did not yet—both full and formal.

As one would kiss the ring of a cardinal, or the rim
of that cold iron bell, whose speech can mean “Great joy,”
or—equally—“The city is burning. Come.”
“The Bell Zygmunt” begins in Kraków, but most of Hirshfield’s poems stay far closer to home. Despite a constant round of reading tours, Hirshfield is not fond of travel, which interferes with her writing. She prefers the small cottage with the large garden, giving impromptu tours to amazed visitors, who conclude that she must be a slave to her flowers. Not so, she says, it’s a function of years and accumulative effort. The cottage and property, purchased before Marin property values skyrocketed, were affordable even for a poet who was also doing some teaching and editing and had a comparatively small public.

In the years since, she has had critical acclaim (Given Sugar, Given Salt was a finalist for the 2001 Book Critics Circle Award) and rare popular recognition. For example, she spent a half-hour in conversation with Bill Moyers in the 1999 PBS series The Sounds of Poetry (the interview also appears in Moyers’ book, Fooling with Words), and her poem “Optimism” was published in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine O. After made the San Francisco Chronicle’s fiction best seller list, as did Given Sugar, Given Salt in 2001—a signal distinction for any book of poetry.

Hirshfield may be among America’s most popular poets, but fame unsettles her. She recalls being disconcerted when a stranger recognized her on a New York subway—an unusual experience for any poet. The encounter startled her, partly because “the person who writes the poems cannot be recognized or talked to. She doesn’t exist except during the moments that she is actually writing.”

Thinking about her audience, Hirshfield says, is “not my job.” Such considerations in the world of poetry are a “hell-realm and a death-knell.”

As she speaks, a ginger-colored cat appears in the window behind her, climbs over a fence, and drops into some lush greenery. The neighbor cat—named Cheddar—enters through a back door Hirshfield has left open and is soon on her lap. “My pleasure in Cheddar is boundless,” she says, as the cat jumps from her lap and ambles toward a familiar bedroom for a nap.

It’s not surprising that Hirshfield prefers the world inside her gate; in a way, she has created her own monastery: “The days when I can stay here entirely and not step outside the gate are a small echo of the monastic experience of nondistraction, concentration, and hunting the deep ore of experience.” She draws her inspiration from quiet moments and solitary reflection, whether upon a piano lesson next door or one of her neighbors’ many cats, as in the poem “Against Certainty” from After:
When the cat waits in the path-hedge,
no cell of her body is not waiting.
This is how she is able so completely to disappear.

I would like to enter the silence portion as she does.

To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,
One shadow fully at ease inside another.
And in this small world, Hirshfield creates a bigger one. Speaking of the work of poetry, she said, “The world is altered by good, new poems. It is made larger, given new windows that open out onto different landscapes and that also shine an altered light back into the known, as opening a new window in what used to be a wall changes not only the wall but the room.”

Asked, she considers the fleeting fame brought about by books. “In six billion years, we will all go up in smoke—there is no immortality.”

Is there a future for poetry, then? On a smaller scale than six billion years? Many have been gloomy, but Hirshfield is optimistic. The impulse toward shapely language is irrepressible. “You couldn’t kill it with a sledgehammer,” she said, smiling. “Poetry can survive on nothing. Pen and ink are cheap.”
Originally Published: June 28th, 2006

Cynthia Haven has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post Book World, the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2007 she received a Milena Jesenská Journalism fellowship with Vienna's Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Haven is the author of Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (2006) and Invisible...

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  1. January 17, 2007

    i like postmodern poems.

  2. February 5, 2007

    What a wonderful article. Thank you. This has given me a lot to think about when writing my own poems.

  3. February 26, 2007

    Ms. Hirshfield's work is like a bell sounding through the fog. She is a writer most would want to acknowledge as friend.

  4. March 11, 2007
     robert blau

    i was best friends with bert meyers in the late 40s....and then renewed our friendship just before he like hirshfield's email address in order to ask her some questions about the upcoming poetry reading.....robert blau 2008 prince st berkeley

  5. August 13, 2007

    On today's NPR Morning Edition, the uber librarian, Nancy Pearl, read one of JH's poems from her latest collection, After. It was enough to stop me in my tracks. Magnificent.

  6. June 13, 2008
     Mali Morris

    Am reading Jane Hirshfield's collection

    of three Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures,

    Hiddenness,Uncertianty, Surprise.

    Wonderful. Very glad to find more

    about her work on this site, thanks.

  7. April 10, 2010

    I was introduced to Ms. Hershfield through a documentary on PBS about Buddha. I found her voice and demeanor so soothing that I was compelled to find more about her.
    Thank you for a wonderful article.