Ledger

By Jane Hirshfield, reviewed by Stephanie Burt.

Hirshfield has gathered a national reputation for her warm, accessible, careful explorations of Buddhism in demotic American lines, but this new volume is really something special. Her tenth book of verse contemplates with very mixed feelings how “the fed consider the hungry / and stay silent,” how daily life and daily joys go on amid international emergency and authoritarian consolidation: “So much did continue, when so much did not // Small rivulets still flowing downhill when it wasn’t raining. / A sister’s birthday,” “some of us lived till morning. Some did not.” Apothegms and resignations recall by turns Louise Glück and W. S. Merwin as the poet faces the largest—and the most current—truths, neither unduly alarmist nor head-in-sand. Alongside “furious praises,” she composes her overviews of Western civilization, “a furnace invented to burn itself up.” Hirshfield’s life of relative privilege, her small joys and perhaps her readers’ joys, too, maintain their arc while the laws change and the world suffers, in a way that her quietly balanced lines represent: we wake as in a “hammock of burning carbon,” to “walk into the time that is coming.” Gravity in her fears and in her sadness, variety in her pace and in her images, keep the power up in what might otherwise be an overlong volume. As it is, this book stands among the very few that speak so accessibly to the feeling of being alive right now, when so many things appear to be ending—it may be Hirshfield’s best, most moving yet.

 


This review originally appeared in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Spring-Summer 2020