“IT’S SUCH A SLOW JOY,” says poet Jane Hirshfield, about the work of revising a poem. We’ve just left the trailhead for a hike on what she calls the “hem” of Mount Tamalpais. Already we’re deep in conversation about how Hirshfield produces the wise and tender poems that fill her nine poetry collections, including the newly-published Ledger.
It’s not wilderness where we walk, on the first Friday afternoon of 2020. Not by a long shot. Mountain bikers and trail runners dodge us, and other hikers pass, some with dogs. Deer Park in Marin County, California, is a popular urban refuge. “It’s a good place for two Buddhists to walk, don’t you think?” she says. (Another Deer Park, in India, is where the historical Buddha offered his first teachings after realizing the causes of suffering.)
Hirshfield walks with one trekking pole. She keeps a steady pace, drifting slightly off the trail once to forage for chanterelles under an oak canopy. No luck. She has a warm, spirited, good-humored presence, and is equally eager to talk about poems, her longtime trail horse Flame, the death of an old friend, and the necessity of wonder.
I’ve known Hirshfield since the mid-2000s. She’s a Dharma sister—we practice in the same Soto Zen Buddhist lineage—and it’s her poetry I turn to when I crave a clear, steadying voice, and a firm reminder of the immensity and promise of one human life within the vast mystery of the world that holds it.
Walking among coast oak and madrone, “musters” of mushrooms (Hirshfield’s name for the larger drifts), and animal life both glimpsed and unglimpsed is also an appropriate venue for talking about Hirshfield’s latest collection, which directly engages the urgent issues of our time, especially the interwoven crises of environmental degradation, climate change, and species extinction. It’s her most activist book yet. Hirshfield draws on her Buddhist practice and honed poetic craft to look unflinchingly at the mess we are in, but also to find refuge. The collection bears witness to Earth under duress—trees toppling, birds vanishing, oceans acidifying. But the poet holds no megaphone or manifesto. There’s a mournful quality to the work, a quiet and elegiac composure. The book is a ledger of loss and loss-to-come. Its subject is grim, but it is not a grim book. It’s a stirring call to action’s antecedent—awareness.
Humility unlocks the gates of perception—“We cannot let our ideas blind us to our unknowing.”
Humility brings us to hope, slowly, and often, joyfully.
For Hirshfield, every poem is a renewal of a lifelong intention to cultivate awareness. In writing or reading a poem, perception is porous and meaning is multi-faceted, layered, beyond argument or judgement.
“Awareness of what is, and fidelity to seeing what is with curiosity’s questioning and accuracy, are at the heart of both poetry and science,” she says. “Poets and research scientists are equally dedicated to a primary observation. We draw from the available data of our lives—by which I mean also the lives and the data we share with plants, animals, rocks, galaxies.”
Hirshfield has more than a passing interest in poetry’s affinity with science. She’s been artist-in-residence with both a UCSF neuroscience group and an Oregon experimental forest. Some of her closest friends are research scientists. It was with them in mind that she wrote “On the Fifth Day” after the White House removed climate change information from its website and muzzled federally-funded climate scientists. She read that poem on the Washington Mall at the first March for Science in April 2017, after it appeared as a full-page feature in the Washington Post. Also for the march, Hirshfield founded #PoetsforScience, curating a special collection of science-related poems in banner and poster formats, arranging for science-writing workshops, and later sending the project on to other venues. In 2019, she was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Poetry and science both safeguard truth. The role good science can play in ending the climate emergency is obvious—if that science is not silenced. When I asked Hirshfield about poetry’s ability to help protect the planet, she said: “We won’t work to preserve what we don’t care about and love, what we don’t see as ‘treasure’ or believe, as the title poem says, ‘counts.’ Some things can be counted. Some are beyond measure. Both matter. If the discoveries of the scientists are to be implemented in our human choices, they must be felt to matter. I believe research science and research poems are partners. Each undertakes indispensable work, toward shifting the culture’s tiller.”
This work of shifting the tiller happens in Hirshfield’s poems, but also in her daily life. Taking to heart the closing lines of her poem “(No Wind, No Rain),” she trusts that even the smallest action matters in ways we can’t measure. She does something every day to counter the distortions and lies and harmful policies of the current administration. She writes letters. She calls her senators. She advocates for the natural world on federal agencies’ public comment sites.
(No Wind, No Rain)
No wind, no rain,
just fell, as a piece of fruit does.
But no, not fruit. Not ripe.
It broke. It shattered.
addition of resinous cell-sap,
one small-bodied bird
arriving to tap for a beetle.
What word, what act,
was it we thought did not matter?
What’s happening to language now—its appropriation to pollute the truth and attack facts—is heartbreaking for a poet, for all writers and readers, in the way vanishing coral reefs are devastating for the oceanographer, and even more so, the reef’s inhabitants. Quite a few poems in Ledger celebrate language’s abundances and fret over its limitations.
There’s a story behind Hirshfield’s poem, “My Debt,” also featured here. She wrote another poem first, “Ghazal for the End of Time,” and sent it to a friend, after sharing that it was the darkest thing she had ever written and it frightened her. (The title says a lot, but the last line is “Death said, Now I too am orphan.”) That line shook Hirshfield to the core. It was a vision of complete failure, she tells me. Such a statement meant life itself no longer exists. In apology to her friend for conceiving and sharing such a dark vision, she wrote “My Debt.”
A realization arose within writing that poem, “that it is simply rude not to be grateful for and praise all the beauty still now with us. Out my window this morning, I hear hawks’ mating cries, I see leaves, sun, dapple. I breathe the oxygen the plant world has given us….” Hirshfield wrote in an email exchange. “I am in every moment in debt to all existence, which gains nothing from my fears or my despair.”
who believe in the senses,
I was an accountant,
Permitted to touch
the leaf of a thistle,
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,
cities that glittered like rubies,
on the scales I was given,
in units of fear and amazement.
I wrote the word it, the word is.
I entered the debt that is owed to the real.
spine-covered leaf, soft-bodied spider,
one curious tentacle back toward the hand of the diver
that in such black ink
I set down your flammable colors.
The poet is careful to add that she knows all life will not vanish from the world if we continue our ways unchecked by better manners. “Many organisms will survive our species. Evolution will continue. A different abundance will come. ‘Death says, Now I too am orphan,’ is a line about us and this world as we now know and cherish it—not all life.” The same sentiment is beautifully evoked in a poem about a pine felled by age, beetle infestation, and drought: “something else, in the scale of quickening things, will replace it, this hole of light in the light, the puzzled birds swerving around it.”
In Hirshfield’s view, the quality we most need now is humility. More and more she has come to believe that humility is “the only ethical stance to take, and the only perspective from which we might make more appropriate choices.” Humility loosens the delusion of separateness and helps us see that our fate is “continuous with the fate of all beings.” Humility unlocks the gates of perception—“We cannot let our ideas blind us to our unknowing.” Humility brings us to hope, slowly, and often, joyfully.
Good poems water hope, says Hirshfield, like a rain so fine you hardly feel it, “yet every apricot blossom, grass blade, and being is soaked through. Every good poem reminds us and holds the knowledge of shared fate. If you read the word mountain, for a moment you become mountain. Read ant, for a moment you become ant. This is my hope: that the recognition of shared fate might cause us to act as if shared fate is the reality that in fact it is.”
This first-light mountain, its east peak and west peak.
Its first-light creeks:
Lagunitas, Redwood, Fern. Their fishes and mosses.
Its night and day hawk-life, slope-life, fogs, coyote, tan oaks,
white-speckled amanita. Its spiderwebs’ sequins.
To be personal is easy:
Wake. Slip arms and legs from sleep into name, into story.
I wanted to be mountainal, wateral, wrenal.
Poems © Jane Hirshfield, from LEDGER (NY: Knopf, 2020); used by permission, all rights reserved.