April 17, 2015
Academy of American Poets
Dear Jane Hirshfield,
First of all I’d like to thank you for writing this beautiful, inspirational poem. It really spoke to me in many different ways. Firstly, this poem taught me about forgiveness. Forgiveness is something I have always been able to do, but this poem helped me take it to new levels. I can get annoyed easily, at my friends or my family, but my anger rarely lasts more than a day. When it does, it’s something big and important.
Recently in Social Studies class, we watched a movie on the relationship between Palestinian and Israelis. In this film, called Promises, children from both sides were being interviewed. What they had to say was quite harsh. The two sides spoke about how they hated the other group, how they had stolen their land, how their soldiers had brutally murdered their family. It got pretty intense at parts, but at the end of the movie, those Israeli children visited the Palestinian children at the Palestinians’ refugee camp. The children of both sides became good friends. What a lot of people saw was friendship, but what I saw was a forgiveness. Forgiveness for terrible things, just like how the eland forgives the lion. The lion, who ate him, who tore away his life, and saddened his family. I made another connection between your poem and the movie. Your line “the life she cannot refuse” spoke to me the most. It made me feel lucky and blessed with what I do have, rather than feeling envious of what I don’t have. I know that many people, like those children in the movie, can’t refuse the life they have, no matter how hard and cruel it treats them. Some people have to work harder than they have to and go through more than they should just to stay alive.
At this point in the poem, I felt a change in ideas. I still felt the melancholy tone, but I feel that the main idea changed from forgiveness to determination and perseverance. The third stanza told me that nothing is impossible if you try hard enough. No matter how much the odds are stacked against you, you can do it if you try. This poem taught me that I have to try my hardest at everything I do.
April 26, 2015
I am so grateful to read and know your response to “The Weighing.” You've understood the poem's deep heart, and have understood so well that what it's talking about can be taken in on many levels—that you read this poem and thought of the children of Palestine and Israel is very moving to me, and your response to the line “the life you cannot refuse” is so close to thoughts I've had many times over my life, in thinking about my own fate and the fate of other people I may never meet or know, that it feels almost as if you’ve read my mind far beyond this particular poem. I think you’ve also understood the heart of the film you saw very deeply and well.
I've thought a lot over the years about justice and the accidental circumstances by which so much of a life is shaped. To be born in Washington, D.C., or Seattle, or New York, is not the same as being born in Darfur or in a refugee camp in Jordan or Turkey. In 2007, I visited the Palestinian capital of Ramallah. I read my poems and spoke with university students there, and was taken also to a Palestinian playground in East Jerusalem. On a boundary wall of the playground, someone had painted a mural: a barbed wire fence, and above it a flying dove, symbol of peace, weeping. Recognizing the weeping that lives on both sides of barbed wire, on both sides of any conflict, is the beginning of forgiveness. Around the world now are places where, after long conflict, injustice, civil war, people are trying actively to learn and find forgiveness, by telling their stories. Often, this is happening in formalized ways, in what are called courts of Reconciliation. Sometimes it happens as the film describes—by letting children simply be with one another, talking. I hope, as do the people whose work is shown in the film you describe, this may come more fully to the hard-frozen crisis of Israel-Palestine. My poem’s line “The heart's reasons seen clearly, even the hardest must carry their whip marks and sadness” means understanding that even those who may have wronged you were acting from their own painful suffering.
You’ve described the shift at the end of the poem very well. The poem has, for me, three movements—the first introduces its idea in abstract language. Then the lion and eland remind that suffering is something that will always happen in our lives and that any over-simplified understanding of right and wrong will not help us. Then the ending offers, just as you've written, words for carrying this changed understanding forward, words to remind that it is possible to move into the future, and not be left fractured by whatever has happened to us in the past.
The lines “So few grains of happiness/ measured against all the dark,/ and still the scales balance” are my way of saying it is worth it—that however much we may feel of pain, the joy life also brings us, even the joy of being able to feel sorrow and pain, makes it worth it.
I seem to be haunted by those balancing scales. I hadn't noticed this so much until just now, while writing this letter to you. “The Weighing” was written quite a long time ago, and “Fado,” the opening poem of my newest book, “The Beauty,” brings the those scales back again, still balancing sorrow and happiness, injustice and beauty. (If you want to read that poem, and a little of what I say about it, you can find it here: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2015/03/16/poetry-spotlight-fado-by-jane-hirshfield/.
Thank you for writing so eloquently your response to my words. I am grateful and moved to feel so well understood.