Jane Hirshfield curates poems that look into the abyss with brave clarity and complex humility. Hirshfield shares Eavan Boland’s probing into the place of shadows that history passes by (“Quarantine”), Miroslav Holub’s reminder that there is life and meaning beyond human precision (“Brief Thoughts on Exactness”), and Tomas Tranströmer’s marrying of the visionary and the vernacular (“Vermeer”). Hirshfield closes by reading her poem “Day Beginning with Seeing the International Space Station and a Full Moon Over the Gulf of Mexico and All Its Invisible Fishes.”
Listen to a 1995 reading by Jane Hirshfield on Voca.
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Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.73] You're listening to Poetry Centered, a podcast from the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, and I'm here to welcome you to the show, where we invite a poet to curate and introduce recordings from Voca, the Poetry Center's online archive of more than 1,000 recordings of poets reading their work. To wrap up our second season, we're thankful to welcome poet Jane Hirshfield as our host today. Jane is known as a leading voice for the environment in American poetry, and she's the founder of the project Poets for Science.
[00:00:37.41] She's the author of nine collections of poetry and two essay collections, including Nine Gates-- Entering the Mind of Poetry, the first essay of which she drafted while in residence at the Poetry Center in 1985. Her most recent poetry collection is Ledger, published last year. In this episode, Jane introduces poems that respond to many different crises, examining them with brave clarity and complex humility. You'll hear work by Eavan Boland, Miroslav Holub, and Tomas Tranströmer, in addition to a poem of Jane's own. Welcome, Jane.
[00:01:17.82] I'm Jane Hirshfield, speaking to you from the hem of Mount Tamalpais in the San Francisco Bay Area. The first poem I've chosen to give you is Quarantine by the Irish poet Eavan Boland. She read it on November 19, 2003. I'm recording these thoughts on October 28, 2020, in the eighth month of the coronavirus pandemic, whose unfolding here in the US has become joined with a larger set of longer-standing catastrophes, making this poem, which has been circulating widely these last months, especially apt and appropriate to hear.
[00:02:02.31] Quarantine is a signature poem. Eavan Boland, who died this past April, spoke it every time I heard her read. I talked with Eavan at several summer conferences, and I was invited by her to serve as Stanford's Visiting Poet in 2016, where I got to know her better. She was among the most selfless of poets in her life as in her work, serving the art, serving her students and fellow writers, serving in larger ways the well-being of all and always seeming to slip back into the upholstery, although the poems did not.
[00:02:42.12] In introducing Quarantine at the reading you're about to hear, Eavan speaks of that place of shadows where something happened but may not have been recorded. Her poems from the start were concerned with that very task. They give voice to the overlooked events and persons in whose lives the life of the world goes forward and by whose lives a culture can be and must be judged. Eavan recognized their stories as inseparable from her own, and her poems brought their lives, especially the lives of the women, into the pages of Irish poetry.
[00:03:23.47] Quarantine is unflinching. As it calls itself, a merciless inventory. To hear it is to travel the unbearable's bearing. Its past tense is to present to be experienced as anything distant. The poem happens now every time you read it. Its speech is authoritative. It knows what it knows. "Let no love poem ever come to this threshold," Boland commands. Even as this poem does exactly that. Every line closes with an end-stopping period.
[00:04:04.84] And yet, Quarantine is a poem that, for me, delivers a question into the reader's hands. One demanding answering. That may seem a stretch, but I'd like to try to make the case for it. The recurring sound at the poem's opening is the W, always present in questioning. The W of bewilderment. That sound is there in Quarantine, there even in words that seem to declare and tell-- worst, workhouse, wife. But by the poem's close, Boland has brought in the explicit word inventory of interrogation-- the who, the when, the what, the how, the which, the where.
[00:04:56.36] Only one word from that roster is left unspoken, left for the reader to hear on their own to take into their own privacies of response. That unsaid "why" is, I think, this poem's buried ultimately moral explosive. Hear now, Eavan Boland reading Quarantine.
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[00:05:26.35] And if anything really brings back up for me the extraordinary rift between the past and history, it is this incident for which I wrote the poem Quarantine. The famine was hardly recorded in the documents and chronicles of the time. And you have to look for one of the smallest references to one of the biggest events of it, but also one of the most hidden events, just the death of man among the millions who died.
[00:05:59.25] In a book that was published, called Mo Sceal Fein, which was published in 1901, a man called An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire, who was a priest by that time, he looked back on himself as a very young man, and in fact, a child in the little village of [INAUDIBLE] in [INAUDIBLE]. And it's a two sentence reminiscence of a young man and woman whose children had died in the work house. And he left the workhouse in the bitter cold of the night to walk out to the cabin where they had some semblance of happiness. And they died in the bitter cold that night. And morning when they were found, her feet were held against his chest to try-- he had tried to warm them as he died.
[00:06:44.79] And to me that stands for that place of shadows where something extraordinary happens that might not be recorded, but is part of everything we have become in Ireland.
[00:07:00.81] In the worst hour of the worst season of the worst year of a whole people, a man set out from the work house with his wife. He was walking, they were both walking North. She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up. He lifted her and put her on his back. He walked like that West, and West, and North, until at nightfall under freezing stars, they arrived.
[00:07:33.72] In the morning, they were both found dead of cold, of hunger, of the toxins of a whole history. But her feet were held against his breastbone. The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her. Let no love poem ever come to this threshold. There is no place here for the inexact praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body. There is only time for this merciless inventory, their death together in the winter of 1847. Also what they suffered, how they lived, and what there is between a man and woman, and in which darkness it can best be proved.
[00:08:28.61] The second poem I'd like to give you today is "Brief Thoughts on Exactness," read on March 30, 1988 by the Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub. I was already reading Holub when this curation request arrived and was delighted to be able to hear the poems on his own voice. I'd turned to him just now because I needed his particular alchemical fusion of calm tone and acute perception. It's now one week before the 2020 election. And ever since the 2016 one, I've been reading pretty much only the work of writers who lived through dire times, war, injustice, exile, prison, plague.
[00:09:17.43] These creative responses of proteus finding ever new shapes and replies to many different crises have been useful potions for me these years against despair. Holub wrote during the years of Soviet occupation of his country and his poems evading the censor are in direct, transparent, often surreal, always pointed. They're also paragons of humility, and decentering, and decency, qualities I find a great relief in these days.
[00:09:56.34] The birds and fish of this poem's beginning, and in this version its end, remind of wider worlds than our own, of accuracy's that work just fine without human instruments. The poem's impeccable comic logic points, as good fables always do, beyond its own ground. For me reading it now, these lines by a working scientist speak directly into the Kafka-esque collision of truth and alternative facts of these past four years.
[00:10:31.06] But beyond that, it's a poem taking a larger stand against hubris, speaking with no small compassion into our broader human capacity for seemingly limitless self-delusion. I'd like to propose that the poem's final line holds a sly reminder of the real costs of that delusion along with the earlier reference to the obedient and rather unquestioning soldier. The last lines and may well be the end, not only of accompaniment but of causality. The end of one thing following from the other.
[00:11:13.83] Chronometers tick and guns thunder. That statement about the circular consequences of surety, pride, and technology is, I think, a warning knife slipped into a poem that also offers its own curative prescription. The saving sanity of noticing where actual accuracy lies. In the world going on as it actually does, in life's own capacity for amazing feats, and in recognizing the comic as comic. Hear now Miroslav Holub reading "Brief Thoughts on Exactness."
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[00:12:02.94] "Brief Thoughts on Exactness."
[00:12:08.22] "Fish move exactly there and exactly then, just as birds have their inbuilt exact measure of time and place. But mankind, deprived of instinct, is aided by a scientific research, the sense of which this story shows. A certain soldier had to fire a gun every evening exactly at 6:00. He did it like a soldier. When his exactness was checked, he stated, 'I follow an absolutely precise chronometer in the shop window of the clockmaker downtown. Every day at 17:45, I set my watch by it and proceed up the hill where the gun stands ready. At 17:59, exactly I ready the gun. And exactly at 18 hours, I fire.'
[00:13:18.87] It was found that this method of firing was absolutely exact. There was only the chronometer to be checked. The clockmaker downtown was asked about its exactness. 'Oh, said that a clockmaker. 'This instrument is one of the most exact. Imagine for years, a gun has been fired here at 6:00 exactly. And every day I look at the chronometer and always it shows exactly 6:00.' So much for exactness. And the fish move in the waters and the heavens are filled with the murmur of wings while the chronometers tick and guns thunder."
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[00:14:22.00] The third poem I'd like to give you is "Vermeer" read on April 10, 1988 by the Swedish Nobel Prize winning poet Tomas Tranströmer. I met Tomas only once at the Poetry International Festival in London. And by that time, a stroke had made his speech incomprehensible to anyone other than his wife. But after his work was read by his translator, he took the stage to play to thunderous applause music written for left handed only piano.
[00:14:58.90] He could still write. And the new poems carried his hallmark mix, a moving between the visionary and the actual. And this poem "Vermeer" is filmic and it's looking into the household and the world of the 17th century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, painter of household scenes in which the force of drama is submerged within stillness of surface and the force of feeling consigned to light, and bend of head, and patterned fabric.
[00:15:35.38] Like Vermeer's paintings, Tranströmer's poems value peace without silencing any of its complexities. This poem, like the poems of Boland and Holub, recounts our inescapable permeability to hard existence. That's what poems are good for. Its opening declares no protected world. Just behind the wall, the noise begins. The poem describes the chaos and noise of Vermeer's personal and communal life, the chaos of any human life, from which we can't and shouldn't try to stay separate.
[00:16:19.36] This poem reminds that that chaos is the chaos of life force. And it offers advice for the navigation of a map that doesn't ever stay still. Breathe calmly, Tranströmer advises. Then comes and unforgettably vertiginous depiction of Vermeer's upholstery tax. The gold studs flew in with incredible speed and stopped abruptly as if there had never been other than stillness.
[00:16:55.99] Tranströmer offers perspective as Boland and Holub do by stepping back. It hurts to go through walls. It makes you ill. But it's necessary. The world is one. But walls. And the wall is part of yourself.
[00:17:19.06] At its close, Vermeer offers the secret of wall crossing, the change of understanding that can shift nihilism and despair to possibility. The clear sky has leaned itself against the wall. It is like a prayer to the emptiness. And the emptiness turns its face to us and whispers, I am not empty. I am open. Hear, now Tomas Tranströmer reading the poem, "Vermeer."
[00:17:56.33] We must have some time to discuss things here. So let me end this part of the reading with a poem you were talking about, "Vermeer." And then we can have some talk. I mean I will not stand here talking without Christians. So you have to ask something to start me. This is a poem about the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer van Delft. And as you know, he was a 17th century painter who had a very small production of paintings. And they all have an enormous stillness about them. And they are full of a sort of inner light that's very convincing.
[00:19:02.59] There are two paintings mentioned in this poem, and especially this one, which has no name original are often called "Young Woman Reading a Letter" or "The Blue Lady" or "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter," et cetera. It looks like this. Well, nobody can see it except you. Oh, Louise. You can see it. Yeah.
[00:19:33.61] It's a lady. She's standing in profile in a wonderful blue dress reading a letter. And the strange light is coming. Well, "Vermeer" has this fantastic quietness and luminous intensity in his paintings. But actually, his life was full of stress. He had 11 children, he had a difficult mother-in-law, he had a more difficult brother-in-law, who was completely psychopathic and who lived in the house. And he also had the studio probably in the upper floor of a tavern full of noise.
[00:20:25.84] So that's the conditions for his wonderful paintings. It's a poem where I try to deal with the relationship between life and art in general. And it has a lot of personal involvement too in it. I read this first in Swedish.
[00:21:01.52] [Reading in Swedish]
[00:23:47.82] That's the problem you have on the broadside. We sell for $2.00. And I read it in another translation than the one that's on the broadside.
[00:24:11.43] "Vermeer." "No protected world. Just behind the wall, the noise begins. The inn is there with laughter and bickering, rows of teeth, tears, the din of bells, and the deranged brother-in-law, the death bringer we all must tremble for, the big explosion, and the triumph of rescue arriving late, the boat's preening themselves on the streets, the money creeping down in the wrong man's pocket, demands stacked on demands, gaping red flower heads sweating premonitions of war.
[00:25:04.14] In from there and right through the wall into the clear studio, into the second that's allowed to live for centuries, pictures that call themselves the music lesson, or woman in blue reading a letter, she's in her eighth month, two hearts kick inside her. On the wall behind is a crumpled map of terra incognita.
[00:25:39.09] Breathe calmly on unknown blue material nailed to the chairs, the gold studs flew in with incredible speed and stopped abruptly, as if they had never been out of the stillness. Piercing from depth or height, it's the pressure from the other side of the wall. It makes each pact float and steadies the brush.
[00:26:21.06] It hurts to go through walls. It makes you heal, but it's necessary. The world is one, but walls, and the wall is part of yourself. We know, or we don't know, but it's true for us all, except for small children. No walls for them. The clear sky has leaned itself against the wall. It's like a prayer to the emptiness, and the emptiness turns its face to us and whispers, I am not empty. I'm open.
[00:27:21.53] Each of the three poems that I've chosen to give you today is in some way very different from each other, a poem of abyss looking, and a poem of view shift speaking, in some way, into the holding of this moment's sense of crisis, of great uncertainty, but also of possible pivot.
[00:27:44.60] For a poem of my own, I've picked one that covers a great deal of ground. It has in it the International Space Station, evolution, the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs, the geomorphology of Florida's land formation, also the Civil War in Syria, terrorism, and the ongoing crisis of refugees in the Mediterranean, which of course is also to speak of the ongoing crisis of refugees here in America.
[00:28:19.31] I'm not quite sure why this particular poem is the one that stepped forward to go with the others, except, perhaps, that it leaves open the hinge of the possibility that things might have gone, and still go, differently. Its premise that, at any moment, something might have changed in the past and might change in the future.
[00:28:48.29] Day beginning with seeing the International Space Station and a full moon over the Gulf of Mexico and all its invisible fishes. None of this had to happen. Not Florida. Not the ibis's beak. Not water. Not the horseshoe crab's empty body, and not the living starfish.
[00:29:14.67] Evolution might have turned left at the corner and gone down another street entirely. The asteroid might have missed. The seams of limestone need not have been susceptible to sand and mangroves. The radio might have found a different music. The hips of one man and the hips of another might have stood beside each other on a bus in Aleppo and recognized themselves as long lost brothers.
[00:29:46.29] The key could have broken off in the lock and the nail can refused its lid. I might have been the fish the brown pelican swallowed. You might have been the way the moon kept not setting, long after we thought it would, long after the sun was catching inside the low wave curls coming in at a certain angle. The light might not have been eaten again by its moving.
[00:30:16.84] If the unbearable were not weightless, we might yet buckle under the grief of what hasn't changed yet. Across the world, a man pulls a woman from the water from which the leapt from overfilled boat has entirely vanished. From the water pulls one child, another. Both are living, and both will continue to live. This did not have to happen. No part of this had to happen.
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Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:31:02.47] Jane, thank you for sharing those poems with us. May we all remember that there are wider worlds than our own. Listeners, thank you for sharing your time with us. This wraps up season two of Poetry Centered. We'll be back with a third season later in the spring.
[00:31:19.18] While you wait for the new episodes, we invite you to check out Voca, where you can find hours upon hours of recorded poetry readings. We're always grateful for reviews, ratings and shares of the show. Thanks so much for being with us.
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[00:31:33.88] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is supported by the work of
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Diana Marie Delgado,
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
and I'm your producer, Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audio visual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.