The Raw Power of Ledger

Jane Hirshfield’s new collection will surprise first-time readers and reassure longtime ones.

The Raw Power of <i>Ledger</i>

When a poet’s purpose is tied to our own fate, we tend to notice the poems more seriously because it’s not only the “dexterous pen and the beautiful hand,” but a moral clarity we want. I think poetry works best when it gives us something about the world we can feel better about.

Jane Hirshfield may balk at the word moral, as it hints too much of spiritual leader; that’s been a burden to her, but one she handles gracefully. In her latest work, Ledger, all Hirshfield wants to do, it seems to me, is say what is of value to her. It’s up to the reader, then, to determine how value is established.

And, so, we proceed to find the answer, line after line. We not only read to enjoy the poet’s craft; we pause for reflection to find what the poem means to us. This happens while reading Hirshfield more than most.

“A Bucket Forgets Its Water”

A bucket forgets its water,
its milk, its paint.
Washed out, re-used, it can be washed again.

I admire the amnesia of buckets.

How they are forthright and infinite inside it,
simple of purpose,
how their single seam is as thin of rib as a donkey’s.

A bucket upside down
is almost as useful as upright —
step stool, tool shelf, drum stand, small table for lunch.

A bucket receives and returns all it is given,
holds no grudges, fears,
or regret.

A bucket striking the mop sink rings clearest when empty.

But not one can bray.

Slowing down is not a bad thing in poetry, and this is Hirshfield’s gift. We don’t swim through lyricism alone, or story — as in narration — with people, places, and things all acting on one another.

Instead, we have lines that renew themselves for a second reading and more. And in the emptiness between the lines, we find our own completion. I cannot say enough about how a reader’s keen imagination is grateful for Hirshfield’s imaging.

Renewal and completeness. These are the words I think of as I turn these poems. What is this poet doing? She’s looking at the world and finding nothing better available; she tackles it for just what it is. Then, next, she shows what it could be.

Ledger’s interior work has strong recurring themes, often honoring the natural world. Jane Hirshfield’s habitat is akin to all creatures, as here, in “Falcon”:

“Incapable of betrayal: a tree.//Incapable of holding a secret: a stone.//Without contempt for self or other; an ant, a bee.//Today I and the unhooded bird/ that sits on my head/ are looking in different directions,/ I into the blurring past, he into the blurring future.//How many other pasts and futures,/between and around us, we miss.//Incapability of ungenerosity: grass;/cut, it simply keeps growing.//Without obligation: mosquitoes.//How close to human/must the breathed-in air come/before it develops a sense of shame or humor?//…Each day the falcon’s view a little clearer.”

Language is kept at a high bar with assessed value, and that, perhaps, is why this writer doesn’t waste it.

Ledger holds three pages of “Nine Pebbles,” nine tiny poems. Here is “Haiku: Monadnock”:      

November rain —
two bronze deer turn to face me
as I pass.

Words, language, and meanings are discussed in a two-page prose piece, “Capital: An Assay”:

A writer’s capital is language, which, it seems, is as slippery as any other
kind of wealth, as potentially cursed if held without nuance, as tran-
sient, as bluntly and inextricably subjective. Briefly borrowed inheri-
tance; a street-found penny. In another 90 years, I can’t help but
wonder, will penny be a word so unfamiliar it too will need looking up,
another mopus? Yet to be penniless will be just as painful when named
in some other way.

Writers are denizens of a complex world, figuring it out for us. They wind up as others wind down. They restore consciousness, rinse off language, and create a finer air. Hirshfield has done this for many years. Ledger continues that literary history. It is another invitation to find the many choices within ourselves.

Grace Cavalieri is Maryland’s 10th poet laureate. Her latest chapbook is Showboat (2019), and a forthcoming poetry collection is What the Psychic Said (2020), both from Goss Publications. She produces/hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.

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