Vanessa Loh, a review of Jane Hirshfield's The Beauty
How better to introduce beauty than with a song? It would have to be an old song. One that everyone knows, but maybe no one remembers. A song that is comforting but still unfamiliar. Timeless and yet somehow mortal. A fado, with wisdom in its disconsolate storytelling, might be the perfect air.
The first poem in Jane Hirshfield's new collection of poems, The Beauty, is titled "Fado" and by its end offers the same melancholic mediations as the most memorable fado. But Hirshfield begins with a magic trick--that nearly uneventful pulling of a quarter from behind a child's ear. Or is the real trick that from that magician's sleight of hand Hirshfield pulls out the provocative question:
Which amazes more,
you may wonder:
the quarter's serrated murmur
against the thumb
or the dove's knuckled silence? (line 6-10)
Surrender for a moment to contemplate the "serrated murmur" of the mundane quarter, or to appreciate the "knuckled silence" of the captured dove. The beauty in the unusual word combinations gives way to the beauty of the pondering.
This introductory poem does not rest in the sense of awe at what has become routine. With a steady forward movement, it conjures its final feat: we bend within the "half-stopped moment" (line 14) of wonder and it is before the dawn in Portugal, where a woman sings a fado because, perhaps, our lives depend upon it. The poem concludes by explaining the heaviness, or maybe the sturdiness, of the fado
that puts every life in the room
on one pan of a scale,
itself on the other,
and the copper bowls balance. (lines 18-20)
What is measured in this delicate balance is the beauty that Hirshfield has pulled from behind the ear of the diurnal. And the beauty is in the balance itself as well.
Hirshfield's collection of poems is a balance between short and long, simple and more intricate. One is reminded of Virginia Woolf's exhortation, "Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than what is commonly thought small" (150). If we understand Woolf to be calling for an active equilibrium between the big and the small by redirecting us to toward what our habits tell us is small, Hirshfield demonstrations the value in this notion. Her collection shows the distinction between big and small is without foundation. By dismantling our habitual ways of understanding the world around us, Hirshfield flattens the ways by which we judge and compels us to answer with new ways of conceiving of how we live.
The poem "My Species" works through social tensions by way of an analogy to the slow process of boiling of an artichoke. The usual method of cooking an artichoke is time consuming and requires a degree of patience a hungry person is unlikely to possess. Hirshfield, instead, renders the process as an art insofar as what it yields is grace. Rather than an interminable wait to consume, the entire affair is about what stands to be gained during the passage of time. In other words, the small, subtle things that change during the wait for what we think is the bigger end result are the more meaningful refinements. After all, it is only through she small adjustments that change of any consequence can occur.
The evidence of this leveling of big and small is perhaps most obvious in the poem "My Life Was the Size of My Life" that traces the love affair of an individual with her own life. Despite the banality of the ordinary, "its rooms were room-sized," (line 30) one cherishes what one has when faced with the prospect of losing it. Having tried to escape her life, the speaker realizes
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off our clothes on
our tongues from (lines 21-24)
The mid-sentence ending of the poem is an affirmation of life, of possibility, of the imagination of the unfinished. The particulars, the small details, are the meaningful, the beauty. What is entirely ordinary, tautological even, becomes irresistible to the speaker, who longs again for the way the mundane features of her particular life coincide with who she is.
As the collection moves from the personal to the general themes of possibility and openness, death and life, language and number are amplified. There is growing sense of appreciation for the beauty of the unfinished symmetry of daily living. In "Perspective Without Any Point In Which It Might Vanish," Hirshfield again brings together the "half-stopped moment" of reflection and the perpetual march forward of time. The poem ruminates on the way a painting portrays the simplicity in being without the need for description, "nothing is adjective, everything noun" (line 6). We poignantly become aware, by the poem's end, that "even today" (line 8) correlates precisely with what it is--or with what it could be--through our profound familiarity with its tread. Like colors, like music, many of Hirshfield's poems resist being anything other than objects of beauty themselves.
What can we make, then, of the surprises of extraordinary proportions lurking in some poems? It is initially disconcerting to find reference to pink cuniculan space rabbits in a poem that seems to be about the accidents of fate. The staggering unfamiliarity is suspicious. If she had encouraged us to become comfortable with the beauty of the familiar, Hirshfield will not permit the habits of the mundane to slip back in. Within certain poems she sows seeds of the spectacular and with a little digging they burst open for the reader. In other words, Hirshfield keeps her reader on her toes, rooting within the ordinary for bits to admire. And the uncomfortable shock inspired by the space rabbits one finds nesting in "The One Not Chosen" is a signal to the reader to open up wider the possibilities one is willing to embrace. The features that make us different, make us fascinating, and more importantly, make us who we are. The accidents of fate that give rise to our deformities, that make us worthy or unworthy to be a chosen one, are also part of the way we create change.
Hirshfield's poems are healing poems insofar as they work to recover the ordinary from the bustle and ambition of living, the beautiful from the repetition of the diurnal, the human from the temporal.
Hirshfield, Jane. The Beauty. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. "Modern Fiction." (1925) The Common Reader. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. New
York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. 146-54. Print.
Review of John Bensko's Visitations, by Rebecca Beach
John Bensko's fourth collection of poetry, Visitations, opens a window to America's frontier past with stirring and nuanced poems that speak honestly of the human psyche and its ties to the natural world. The book begins with a delightfully macabre trip to Providence, Rhode Island, and the home of Sarah Helen Whitman, who was engaged, if only briefly, to Edgar Allan Poe and concludes with a shell-shocked soldier setting free a pair of similarly mismatched sheep. In between these two evocative locales, Bensko ventures into a history of American writers, artists, farmers, soldiers, families, and the natural landscapes where these curious figures trod and travelled. Visitations is a book filled with voices conjured from the nineteenth century, when yellow fever was as feared as Yankee riders, when women fashioned linen from flax and candles from bayberries, and when the natural world spoke to us with its well-learned articulations. Bensko offers us the words of rivers, weeds, and the seasoned voices from a rugged American past. Each voice, collectively, contributes to Bensko's intimate narrative of the rural land and its passing inhabitants drawn from more than a century ago.
The first section of Visitations, titled, "The Spirit," offers startling portrayals of an eclectic group of characters--all of them linked to death and its varied forms. The first poem in the book, "Ectoplasm," is a chilling account of Edgar Allan Poe's own painful form of love, portraying the writer more at home in his own mental "dark parlor" preoccupied by "seeping blood," "a blow that can kill," "that Smith boy killed by hogs," and a body "never found" than the blooming flowers and ornate furnishings surrounding him in his future bride's house. In "Farmer Crevecoeur and the Hornet," Bensko imaginatively links domestic and familial care to the violent ferocity of a hornet who eats his delicately prepared meal perched upon a young boy's eyelid, showing the precarious lines drawn between love, life, and death. (see poem in this issue) "The Prisoner's Visitation" directs us to the Rapidan River, where Civil War casualties have been left to surgeons with saws and sweet dreams of home and a beckoning death. A soldier hailing from Texas deliriously tells us: "Heaven, I thought, would be to slip/ to the Rapidan. I'd sink, then rise/ from the spring by my house./ I'd float as weightless as truth, through the parched/ Texas countryside and the desert beyond" (53-57).
Bensko moves from this free and watery spirit to the death of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne's unborn child. In "At Concord" we feel Sophia Hawthorne, in mourning, express her tangible grief through an engraving on a cold window: "Unlike the paper where he writes the lives/ he imagines, the glass of the window is hard. I crave to reach past its late spring frost, which chills my fingers" (1-4). The imaginative lives her husband crafts on paper sharply contrast to the hardened memory of a lost child. Finally in "Henry Wirz, November 1865" we hear the foul-mouthed voice of Wirz, the first tried and executed soldier following the Civil War, just as his noose is tightly hung. The dynamic monologue of Wirz captures his cold indifference to life: "Regrets? A few, like at the end/ when we didn't shoot then all" (16-17) and "Compassion? There is no such, except/ in fear, the way you'd treat a snake/ with respectful distance until it lowers/ its head and slithers off" (20-23). The range of characters and spirits encountered in this section speaks to the author's versatility of form and sharp ear for the vernacular.
The following section of the book titled, "The Landscape," presents vivid descriptions of rural American land and the plants, people, and animals nurtured there years ago. Reading these pages felt like revisiting familiar home terrain--spacious land filled with patchwork fields, tenacious weeds, and neglected barns serving as signs of a spent past. "Oxen in the Shade" renders a pastoral vision of lounging oxen in the hot August sun in contrast to the anxious, if unspoken, thoughts of those who watch them. It is a dream-like interlude that breaks away from other poems depicting the fierce life and labor demanded by the land itself. In "Tobacco Knife" the materialist trappings of an antique store filled with "silver and porcelain" are juxtaposed against the owner's fondly remembered days spent on a Kentucky hillside. Bensko writes that, "With fingers small and agile/ he picked off bugs/ that worked each leaf toward a lattice/ of failure" (5-8).
This striking imagery of the natural world dwindling away continues in poems like "Persimmon" where Bensko traces the seasonal evolution of a piece of fruit. To anyone who has ever had the misfortune to taste an unripen persimmon, his words-- "the firm green orb is wicked./ Sour is the mouth" (3-4)-- ring all-too true. In "Weeds" we see the forcible destruction and the phoenix-like rising of burned weeds who return in "the darkness" (31) and never quite leave us. The persistent life of weeds stands apart from the poor "Chufa"--a type of sedge that was often used for hog food and eaten by soldiers during the Civil War--which has largely been forgotten today. In a wistful tone, we hear chufa lament: "Later years, we'll be forgotten...We'll stretch unknown at the edge/ of southern fields, plowed for cotton, for beans--/ or sunk beneath new-grown scrubby pines--/ left some little patch where the innocent/ might pull at roots, and sniff, wary to taste/ or take home for washing" (14, 22-27). In this poem nostalgia blends with a keen sense of one's rootedness to a specific place and time--these are the underlying thematic notes woven throughout Visitations that give the poetry its force and verve.
In the final section of the book, "The Stop Before Night" Bensko deftly writes of watery locales like the Mississippi River, the marshes of Newburyport, the Hudson River, and Niagara Falls-- places that prompt resonant meditations on the fragility and fluidity of life. Several of these settings derive from paintings rendered by celebrated American artists like John Singleton Copley, Martin Johnson Heade, and the Hudson River School and remind us of how varied historical perspective can be. In "Watson and the Shark" we find the dramatic rescue of Brook Watson, as it was portrayed on canvas by Copley in 1778, refigured through the defiant words of the savior: "Refuse, like me, to wake while skin/ and bone feel the teeth cutting through./ Let us hone ourselves/ across the water. When we bite each other's/ lips, taste the salt of our blood. Slick/ as seals, dive onward" (20-25). The sharp ferocity of this near-death experience is contrasted to the more pensive reflections in "Snow Day" that link the human soul and death, in their delicacy, to snow: "People like to speak of the soul, and the soul's awakening./ It drifts, it rises and falls, it deepens./ Watching it at night, I wonder how thick it will be by morning./ In the day, I hope it will not stop before night" (19-22). Snowy imagery continues in the dramatic recollection of "Niagara: Winter 1878" where a perilous line is finely drawn between life and death as guides prompt visitors onto the icy landscape with little but ropes, iron cleats, daring, and fear: "Never such immigrant clarity/ as when the nerves are frozen, when the trembling stops/ and the feet enter their own awareness,/ one before the other, a certainty,/ a balance so fine it claims the heart" (36-41). In this poem, like many in the collection, surprising and evocative imagery combines with a strong narrative voice to convey the power wrought from natural landscapes and their hold on the human spirit.
The final poem of this section, and of the book, moves away from snow and water to introduce a figure of the past who awakens in an abandoned barn to find two sheep unshorn in the mid-summer heat. After cutting their wool, the disheartened and solitary narrator tells us: "And I stayed, uncertain/ if owners would return/ or if war had done to them/ as to the sheep and farm and me,/ leaving them nowhere, as though/ there could be a nowhere/ while the sun still shone/ and the seasons moved along" (20-27). This concluding poem fittingly ends the collection with seasonal imagery--seasons that continually and ceaselessly evolve, shaping our own lives and serving as reminders of the ebb and flow of life and death.
In this memorable collection of poems, we find American landscapes that are frightening, beautiful and transcendent. We find historical characters whose varied voices are not so very different from the ones we listen to today. Bensko situates his poems in settings of the past, yet consistently nods to how history touches our present. These lovely and unexpected narratives transport us to a more natural time and setting in America, offering a thoughtful and sensory escape from the turmoil and noise of the twenty-first century. I am so glad that Bensko is writing in our own times to illuminate for us the wonder to be excavated from a shared past.
Rebecca Beach is a native of Clarksville, Tennessee. She holds an M.F.A. in creative non-fiction from Emerson College and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky.