Come, Thief: Poems

  • Jane Hirshfield
  • Knopf
  • 108 pp.

Poetry of the spirit and of large ideas, with a light hand.

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

Poetry is an art, not a spiritual practice. However, Jane Hirshfield’s work reflects art from a life immersed in Zen Buddhism, enriched by the study of Chinese and Japanese classical poetry. But she is still an American girl, a story-telling girl. Her story happens to be of time, eternal recollection and the spirit seeking form through language. Her poetry teaches us that thought without spiritual content is empty, and that pure intuition without intellectual concepts is blind. All pitfalls she avoids.

Hirshfield sets a light hand on large ideas. Her poems are one-pagers and there is comfort in consistency of thought. Each poem is an energetic event and a spiritual discipline. A seasoned poet, Hirshfield gives stability in structure because spirit is untamable and art is the way we hold it to form. This is not to say that one poem is like the other, not at all; poetry is a living thing through variance of expansion and compression, and the way space is utilized on the page. She uses different presentations to provide different meanings. Yet her signature is the dewdrop illuminating the universe. This new book is a further awareness of the experience that characterizes Hirshfield’s work. She uses actual events that keep us tethered to earth while pondering abstract realities.

The Conversation

A woman moves close: There is something she wants to say. The currents take you one direction, her. All night you are aware of her presence, aware of the conversation that did not happen. Inside it are mountains, birds, a wide river, a few sparse-leaved trees. On the river a wooden boat putters. On its deck a spider washes its face. Years from now, the boat will reach a port by the sea, and the generations of spider descendants upon it will look out, from their nearsighted, eightfold eyes, at something unanswered.

“The Conversation” shows how Hirshfield uses time and space to her advantage. A clear event in present time is introduced. The poet is smart enough to provide a literal level to the poem to guide us through a first reading. Something almost happens. The poem veers from the actual to a more mysterious state of being that lies between the thoughts, not projected by them. A universe of seeing suddenly blooms as if by magic. First a panorama explodes and just as suddenly zooms into the face of a spider. Then, a shift in time: flash forward, flash backward, sweeping to a conclusion that reports that there is actually never a conclusion. We cannot tie a knot in the ribbon of time, and Jane Hirshfield is not going to make a poem pander to that idea. “Then, when, now” are all the same. Nothing is lost Nothing is found. The space between expectation and realization is a chip of eternity.

Jane Hirshfield would not like to be called a spiritual leader. She’d object to the term “philosopher” as well, yet she serves us well by behaving like someone who has a clear vision and is willing to share it.

Each poem in the book attempts a different poetic feat. Some poems have a narrative, others are abstract principles; some poems are blessings, others premonitions. Each calls for its own shape to deliver the necessary impact, and in each, the poet is in control of the material. Someone is clearly in charge. We are safe and in good hands.

Although a departure for her, Hirshfield is not above using the anecdote as poem. She is also not too proud to use an extended metaphor or a good punch line when needed.


When a fine old carpet is eaten by mice, the colors and patterns of what’s left behind do not change. As bedrock, tilted, stays bedrock, its purple and red striations unbroken. Unstrippable birthright grandeur. “How are you,” I asked, not knowing what to expect. “Contrary to Keatsian joy,” he replied.

The anecdotal poem can be a snapshot of anything found, seen or overheard. What turns anecdote into poem is a philosophical underpinning that changes hearsay into meaning. The title is the signpost and is often essential. “Alzheimer’s” is a good example of how Hirshfield uses the practical and everyday to make meaning without falling off Mt. Olympus in the process.

This book also contains a collection of poetic phrases titled “Fifteen Pebbles.” These, singly titled, are observations or thought forms that, taken together, form a portrait of the author’s mind.

Significant is that the smallest thought can house the largest idea. The universe can be found in a drop of rain or a grain of sand, but we have to know what to look for and how to see. Then there is belief. These poems start with the belief that we have the capacity that the poet has, and it requires a kind of faith in the reader. Many poems provide enough information at first brush for readers to enjoy the experience, and in others we have to meet the writing halfway, willing to enter the dream state or connect the fragments with our own imaginations.

Here is the title poem:

Come, Thief

The mandarin silence of windows before their view, like guards who nod to every visitor, “Pass.”

“Come, thief,” the path to the doorway agrees.

A fire requires its own conflagration. As birth does. As love does. Saying to time to the end, “Dear one, enter.”

Poetry is a product of both the poet’s nighttime mind and daytime mind, and poetry often asks that we enter a surreal state and accept the emotional life found there on its own terms. Thought is not linear. It is pointillistic. The poet trusts that we know as much as she does about being alive, and that we will bring our experience to the poem. That is the balancing act for the poet, to say enough but not too much. To trust.

A Roomless Door

I walked past a house

I walked past a house I heard weeping

I walked past my father’s house I heard weeping

it sounded like

a piano’s 89th key.

We are in an electronic age of multiple realities, virtual shards of seeing, glaring glittering truths bombarding us, pictures of pictures, shattering visions of humankind. It is restorative to read words of kindness and authenticity. Perhaps they are one and the same.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She’s the producer of “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio. Her series, now from the Library of Congress, celebrates its 34th consecutive year on-air.

comments powered by Disqus