“The Poet” by Jane Hirshfield

She is working now, in a room
not unlike this one,
the one where I write, or you read.
Her table is covered with paper.
The light of the lamp would be
tempered by a shade, where the bulb’s
single harshness might dissolve,
but it is not; she has taken it off.
Her poems? I will never know them,
though they are the ones I most need.
Even the alphabet she writes in
I cannot decipher. Her chair —
let us imagine whether it is leather
or canvas, vinyl or wicker. Let her
have a chair, her shadeless lamp,
the table. Let one or two she loves
be in the next room. Let the door
be closed, the sleeping ones healthy.
Let her have time, and silence,
enough paper to make mistakes and go on.

Jane Hirshfield from The Lives of the Heart 

“November, Remembering Voltaire” by Jane Hirshfield

In the evenings
I scrape my fingernails clean,
hunt through old catalogues for new seed,
oil work boots and shears.
This garden is no metaphor –
more a task that swallows you into itself,
earth using, as always, everything it can.
I lend myself to unpromising winter dirt
with leaf-mold and bulb,
plant into the oncoming cold.
Not that I ever thought the philosopher
meant to be taken literally,
but with no invented God overhead
I conjure a stubborn faith in rotting
that ripens into soil,
in an old corm that flowers steadily each spring –
not symbols but reassurances,
like a mother’s voice at bedtime
reading a long-familiar book, the known words
barely listened to, but bridging
for all the nights of a life
each world to the next.

Jane Hirshfield, 1983
Of Gravity & Angels

“This Morning, I Wanted Four Legs” by Jane Hirshfield

Nothing on two legs weighs much,
or can.
An elephant, a donkey, even a cookstove—
those legs, a person could stand on.
Two legs pitch you forward.
Two legs tire.
They look for another two legs to be with,
to move one set forward to music
while letting the other move back.
They want to carve into a tree trunk:
2gether 4ever.
Nothing on two legs can bark,
can whinny or chuff.
Tonight, though, everything’s different.
Tonight I want wheels.


Published in The New Yorker, July 2, 2012

“It Was Like This: You Were Happy” by Jane Hirshfield

It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.

It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.

At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent—what could you say?

Now it is almost over.

Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.

It does this not in forgiveness—
between you, there is nothing to forgive—
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.

Eating, too, is a thing now only for others.

It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.


From After (Harper Perennial, 2006). Copyright © 2006 by Jane Hirshfield.

“Things Seem Strong” by Jane Hirshfield

Things seem strong.
Houses, trees, trucks—a chair, even.
A table.

You don’t expect one to break.
No, it takes a hammer to break one,
a war, a saw, an earthquake.

Troy after Troy after Troy seemed strong
to those living around and in them.
Nine Troys were strong,
each trembling under the other.

When the ground floods
and the fire ants leave their strong city,
they link legs and form a raft, and float, and live,
and begin again elsewhere.

Strong, your life’s wish
to continue linking arms with life’s eye blink, life’s tear well,
life’s hammering of copper sheets and planing of Port Orford cedar,
life’s joke of the knock-knock.

Knock, knock. Who’s there?
I am.
I am who?

That first and last question.

Who once dressed in footed pajamas,
who once was smothered in kisses.
Who seemed so strong
I could not imagine your mouth would ever come to stop asking.


Published at The New Yorker, Sep. 5, 2016