Jane Hirschfield

Here’s a poem for book lovers, from Given Sugar, Given Salt:

Each Day I Choose From Among the Steepening Reminders

Each day I choose
From among the steepening reminders
Of all I have failed to finish, failed to begin.
I open a right-hand cover and read the last page.

Phrases severe and perfect rise before me,
Wrung from every extremity of joy and sleek-limbed loss.
Borges, Sinyavsky, Hadewijch, Sappho, Li Po.

More arrive each week, ink sharp as new hunger.

And these are only the books:
The thing already ambered, capable of waiting, turned to words.

I love the way Hirschfield slowly builds up to her point here. At first we don’t know what the “steepening reminders” are; they could be the accumulated reminders of anything she has wanted to do but has left undone. And then in the fourth line we learn she’s talking, in part, about books, all the things she wants to read. We imagine a stack of unread books the speaker looks through longingly, aware of their possibilities. The severe and perfect “phrases” of the fifth line rise up before her also like that stack of books, and the list of names adds to the feeling of weight and potential. But the end of the poem moves back out to a larger view; books, after all, will remain, are fixed and frozen, are waiting there for her when she is ready. What is not, is life itself, the elusive “thing” of the last line, before it is captured and turned into words.

As in many of Hirschfield’s poems, I see evidence here of her Buddhism; she has a keen sense of the importance of the present moment, of all there is to be experienced and absorbed, if one would only pay attention. This poem seems to me to be about the weight of things left undone, the failure to begin and finish things, but also about the conscious choices the speaker makes to do what she does. Each day it is a choice, and the opening line emphasizes her determination to make that choice deliberately. She may fail to do many things, but what she does, she will do because she wants to, because she has chosen it. The poem seems balanced between a sense of responsibility and possibility; those reminders nag at her, like those books she knows she would love but hasn’t found time for yet, but she also takes pleasure in the new choice there is to be made every day.

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Filed under Books, Poetry

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