My Debt

- 1953-

Like all
who believe in the senses,
I was an accountant,
copyist,
statistician.

Not registrar,
witness.

Permitted to touch
the leaf of a thistle,
the trembling
work of a spider.

To ponder the Hubble’s recordings.

It did not matter
if I believed in
the party of particle or of wave,
as I carried no weapon.

It did not matter if I believed.

I weighed ashes,
actions,
cities that glittered like rubies,
on the scales I was given,
calibrated
in units of fear and amazement.

I wrote the word it, the word is.

I entered the debt that is owed to the real.

Forgive,
spine-covered leaf, soft-bodied spider,
octopus lifting
one curious tentacle back toward the hand of the diver
that in such black ink
I set down your flammable colors.

—2018

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