We review very few books of poetry here, but we could not let this one go without making mention of it. Jane Hirshfield is one of our favorites and known to many of you. We gave one of her earlier poetry collections, Given Sugar, Given Salt, one of our “Book of the Year” awards.
Hirshfield is also a translator, an editor of inspired poetry compilations, and the acclaimed author of two collections of essays on the deep spiritual work that poetry can do in the world and in a life. One of her essay collections that we reviewed a quarter of a century ago, Nine Gates, remains a classic.
Hirshfield is a Buddhist poet (lay ordination in Soto Zen) with deep San Francisco Bay roots. She speaks for all of us, regardless of spiritual practice, pointing to openings in our lives.
This thick collection represents a lifetime of vocation to her craft and begins with a section of twenty-nine new one-to-two-page poems, previously unpublished. After that comes the poet’s selection of the best of all of her previous collections.
The first poem in the book begins with the lines: “My life, / you were a door I was given / to walk through.” This could just as easily begin an essay on the journey of a spiritual life.
Hirshfield’s Buddhism comes without trappings, only the wisdom remains, as in these lines from another new poem called “Tin”:
“I studied much and remembered little.
But the world is generous, it kept offering figs and cheeses.
Never mind that soon I’ll have to give it all back,
the world, the figs.
To be a train station of existence is no small matter.”
The poet is attentive to life’s vicissitudes and the task of creating meaning through our lives without sure answers to ultimate questions.
In a pandemic poem she writes, “Today, when I could do nothing, / I saved an ant.” And another new poem’s title says it all: “Each Morning Calls Us to Praise this World that Is Fleeting.”
We recommend “The Little Soul Poems” (eight short, connected verses) from her 2020 collection, included here; and “A Hand Is Shaped for What it Holds or Makes” from her 2011 collection, also here; among many others. See also “The Heart as Origami,” in the excerpt accompanying this review.
We cannot praise this book highly enough. Jane Hirshfield is our poet of wonder and compassion.