Let Them Not Say

- 1953-

Let them not say:   we did not see it.
We saw.

Let them not say:   we did not hear it.
We heard.

Let them not say:     they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.

Let them not say:   it was not spoken, not written.
We spoke,
we witnessed with voices and hands.

Let them not say:     they did nothing.
We did not-enough.

Let them say, as they must say something: 

A kerosene beauty.
It burned.

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.

—2014

More by Jane Hirshfield

I wanted to be surprised.

To such a request, the world is obliging.

In just the past week, a rotund porcupine,
who seemed equally startled by me.

The man who swallowed a tiny microphone
to record the sounds of his body,
not considering beforehand how he might remove it.

A cabbage and mustard sandwich on marbled bread.

How easily the large spiders were caught with a clear plastic cup
surprised even them.

I don’t know why I was surprised every time love started or ended.
Or why each time a new fossil, Earth-like planet, or war.
Or that no one kept being there when the doorknob had clearly.

What should not have been so surprising:
my error after error, recognized when appearing on the faces of others.

What did not surprise enough:
my daily expectation that anything would continue,
and then that so much did continue, when so much did not.

Small rivulets still flowing downhill when it wasn’t raining.
A sister’s birthday.

Also, the stubborn, courteous persistence.
That even today please means please,
good morning is still understood as good morning,

and that when I wake up,
the window’s distant mountain remains a mountain,
the borrowed city around me is still a city, and standing.

Its alleys and markets, offices of dentists,
drug store, liquor store, Chevron.
Its library that charges—a happy surprise—no fine for overdue books:
Borges, Baldwin, Szymborska, Morrison, Cavafy.

—2018

Ledger

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is 3,592 measures.
A voice kept far from feeling is heard as measured.
What’s wanted in desperate times are desperate measures.
Pushkin’s unfinished Onegin: 5,446 lines.

No visible tears measure the pilot’s grief
as she Lidars the height of an island: five feet.
Fifty, its highest leaf.
She logs the years, the weathers, the tree has left.

A million fired-clay bones—animal, human—
set down in a field as protest
measure 400 yards long, 60 yards wide, weigh 112 tons.
The length and weight and silence of the bereft.

Bees do not question the sweetness of what sways beneath them.
One measure of distance is meters. Another is li.
Ten thousand li can be translated: “far.”
For the exiled, home can be translated “then,” translated “scar.”

One liter
of Polish vodka holds twelve pounds of potatoes.
What we care about most, we call beyond measure.
What matters most, we say counts. Height now is treasure.

On this scale of one to ten, where is eleven?
Ask all you wish, no twenty-fifth hour will be given.
Measuring mounts—like some Western bar’s mounted elk head—
our cataloged vanishing unfinished heaven.

—2016

On the Fifth Day

On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.

The scientists who studied the air
were told not to speak of the air,
and the ones who worked for the farmers
were silenced,
and the ones who worked for the bees.

Someone, from deep in the Badlands,
began posting facts.

The facts were told not to speak
and were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent.

Now it was only the rivers
that spoke of the rivers,
and only the wind that spoke of its bees,

while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees
continued to move toward their fruit.

The silence spoke loudly of silence,
and the rivers kept speaking
of rivers, of boulders and air.

Bound to gravity, earless and tongueless,
the untested rivers kept speaking.

Bus drivers, shelf stockers,
code writers, machinists, accountants,
lab techs, cellists kept speaking.

They spoke, the fifth day,
of silence.

—2017

Related Poems

An Arbor

          1

The world's a world of trouble, your mother must
                    have told you
          that. Poison leaks into the basements

and tedium into the schools. The oak
                    is going the way
          of the elm in the upper Midwest—my cousin

earns a living by taking the dead ones
                    down.
          And Jason's alive yet, the fair-

haired child, his metal crib next
                     to my daughter's.
          Jason is nearly one year old but last

saw light five months ago and won't
                    see light again.

          2

Leaf against leaf without malice
                    or forethought,
          the manifold species of murmuring

harm. No harm intended, there never is.
                    The new
          inadequate software gets the reference librarian

fired. The maintenance crew turns off power one
                    weekend
          and Monday the lab is a morgue: fifty-four

rabbits and seventeen months of research.
                    Ignorance loves
          as ignorance does and always

holds high office.

          3

Jason had the misfortune to suffer misfortune
                    the third
          of July. July's the month of hospital ro-

tations; on holiday weekends the venerable
                    stay home.
          So when Jason lay blue and inert on the table

and couldn't be made to breathe for three-and-a-
                    quarter hours, 
          the staff were too green to let him go.

The household gods have abandoned us to the gods
                    of juris-
          prudence and suburban sprawl. The curve

of new tarmac, the municipal pool, 
                    the sky at work
          on the pock-marked river, fatuous sky,

the park where idling cars, mere yards
                    from the slide
          and the swingset, deal beautiful oblivion in nickel

bags: the admitting room and its stately drive,
                    possessed
          of the town's best view.

          4

And what's to become of the three-year-old brother?
                    When Jason was found
          face down near the dogdish—it takes

just a cupful of water to drown—
                    his brother stood still
          in the corner and said he was hungry

and said that it wasn't his fault.
                    No fault.
          The fault's in nature, who will

without system or explanation
                    make permanent
          havoc of little mistakes. A natural

mistake, the transient ill will we define
                    as the normal
          and trust to be inconsequent,

by nature's own abundance soon absorbed. 

          5

Oak wilt, it's called, the new disease.
                    Like any such
          contagion—hypocrisy in the conference room,

flattery in the hall—it works its mischief mostly
                    unremarked.
          The men on the links haven't noticed

yet. Their form is good. They're par.
                    The woman who's
          prospered from hating ideas loves causes

instead. A little shade, a little firewood.
                    I know
          a stand of oak on which my father's

earthly joy depends. We're slow
                    to cut our losses.