The magic of poetry lives in how digestible it becomes once we imbibe it. Words melt in the mouth when a poet places them on our tongues. The Beauty, an amuse-bouche of tender, lyrical reflection, captures Jane Hirshfield’s unique flavor. Each piece is a morsel, handcrafted and delicately assembled to produce a tableau of unwavering spirit and powerful self-awareness.
As evident in her poetry, Hirshfield is prolific in reflecting on the nature of the human condition. She has been producing waves of poetry since the early 1980s, diverting only to dedicate herself to the worthwhile task of translating ancient Japanese tanka, an act which effectively brought the near-forgotten format to contemporary writing. This is a poet who knows her strength and caters to her audience by maintaining a steady and reliable narrative of transparency in her words. The clarity of her vision is evident in the way that she eloquently bottles loss, grief, and the unrelenting passage of time.
With her steady tone and clear vision, The Beauty is no different than any other collection that Hirshfield has under her belt, each of which carries a tender piece of Hirshfield inside of itself. What has changed, however, is Hirshfield herself. In one of the most deeply resonating pieces that this collection offers, “A Cottony Fate,” she writes: “Long ago, someone / told me: avoid or. / It troubles the mind / as a held-out piece of meat disturbs a dog. / Now I too am sixty. / There was no other life.” To reflect on her time spent turning over that piece of advice is to tease a moment of vulnerability, a glance into the patterned thinking that comes only with experience and age. There is something to be said for the simple calm that Hirshfield stitches into her poems, contrasted with the idea of time’s unceasing march, as witnessed in “My Sandwich,” where she writes: “This life. This flood —/unbargained for as lasting love was—/of lasting oddness.”
By its very nature, poetry is deeply personal. Cracking their hearts like hen’s eggs is a common practice among poets, and Hirshfield is no stranger to sharing her yolk. This book functions as a navigation of the soul, shedding light into the darkest corners of our existence—no easy feat, by any means, but one that Hirshfield undertakes with aplomb. In “Mop Without Stick,” Hirshfield writes: “I am on my knees again, / mop without stick, / over old fir trees turned into flooring.” She rounds out the bold imagery of a human mop with an apt reminder: “One corner of cotton in water wets the whole cloth.” That line, which finishes the poem, sent me reeling with how pertinent it becomes the more that the mind turns it over. The metaphor itself speaks to the fluidity of her work, that an image she designed to reflect her own experiences echoes in the heart of the reader for how purely and painfully relatable the idea is—to feel like a human mop, a tool used to clean up after others, is a powerful and unforgettable comparison.
There is something unshakable that grows around you after a number of years have passed below your gaze. Hirshfield knows this growth and tends to it with great care, pruning the leaves and nurturing its roots. Grief only strengthens its grip, and it is easy to fall prey to the cruelty of its possession. Exploring this in “Two Linen Handkerchiefs,” one of the most gut-wrenching pieces in this collection, Hirshfield writes: “How can you have been dead twelve years / and these still,” leaving the words to trail off, floating into the ether of time. There is something to be said on the poignance following her lack of punctuation, like peering into someone’s mind mid-thought and pulling yourself away before they can finish it.
Since grief and heartbreak are bedfellows, Hirshfield expertly navigates them both. One of my favorite bite-sized passages comes from “Works & Loves,” where she writes: “The happy see only happiness, / the living see only life, / the young see only the young. / As lovers believe / they wake always beside one also in love.” Her words take the breath right out of you, a visceral and unhinging punch to the gut. It is unlikely that anyone can read those words and fail to take away a newfound sense of self-awareness (and perhaps a fleeting moment of self-doubt).
If the reader can take only one lesson from this collection, it would be one of tireless self-reflection. So much of Hirshfield’s words are pulled from the deepest parts of her heart, mined from the core of her being and buffed to a shine, and she encourages anyone who holds her book to do the same. If nothing else, The Beauty is a thorough examination of our collective anxious meditations and a moving tribute to the value of heartfelt introspection. Hirshfield’s words remind us to examine the wonder around us, even in the midst of our most troubled moments, as she writes in “All Souls,” “the beauty — unspeakable — was beauty.”