Saturday, February 14, 2015

Books That Call Us Back

Happy Valentine's Day, poetry lovers! This month three of our blogging team present the poets they consider touchstones―books and writers whose words touch deeper chords, serve as a hallmark of poetic achievement, continually surprise with original beauty. They inspire us with poems that cause us to breathe in, true to the origin of the word; in essence, to breathe more fully into our own perceptions and truths.

Karen George touches on several poets whose work most moves her, with special emphasis on Li-Young Lee's collections. Joel W. Nelson focuses his reader's light on the haiku of Kobayashi Issa in Spring of My Life. Barbara Sabol explores the work of Jane Hirshfield, highlighting in particular the book The Lives of the Heart.


*** KAREN GEORGE: My list of touchstone poetry books that I return to again and again would include all four of Li-Young Lee’s poetry collections (The City in Which I Love You, Rose, Book of My Nights, and Behind My Eyes), because of how his poems are layered with meaning, haunting in their tenderness and longing, deeply spiritual, yet grounded in the world of the senses. I’d also include New and Selected Poems, Volume I and II by Mary Oliver, and W. S. Merwin’s Migration: New and Selected Poems, because of how they teach me to pay attention, and immerse me in their reverence for the beauty and vulnerability of the natural world. Pablo Neruda’s One Hundred Love Sonnets would hold a place on my list of vital poetry books because of his sensuous imagery, and the intimacy, passion and mystery at the core of his poems. Jane Hirshfield’s After, Come, Thief, and Given Sugar, Given Salt earn a place on my list because of their contemplative nature, and how her spare yet multi-layered poems suggest as much by what she does not say as what she does. I’d include Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words Under the Words: Selected Poems for her direct, simple language, and her sense of urgency and compassion in writing about moral concerns and injustices. Lastly, Marie Howe’s The Good Thief and What the Living Do would hold a place on my list of touchstone books for the powerful, nuanced ways she handles complex emotional issues involving relationships and loss.

***JOEL W. NELSON: “Touchstone” isn't exactly the first word to roll off my tongue in the morning. What does it mean anyway? At one point, a touchstone was a literal stone used to measure the quality of gold and silver. Applied to our topic of discussion, a “touchstone” book of poetry can be understood as a book that one uses to judge the quality of other works, possibly even ones own. Kobayashi Issa's The Spring of My Life, translated by Sam Hamill, is such a book for me.

 Language is an essential compromise. Words can give life to a poem, but they can also kill a poem. The secret is in finding the right balance, and Issa is a master. His poems explore the whole range of emotion from light humor to deep suffering. When confronting suffering, the temptation is always to say too much instead of handling it with restraint, something Issa does beautifully. Even when his daughter dies of small pox, Issa manages to hold back:
 This world of dew
 is only a world of dew--
 and yet...oh and yet... 
This poem kicks off a series of poems by various haiku poets who also lost children. The haiku are brilliant mini-explosions of raw emotion. If there is one trait I admire most in a poet is his or her ability to transcend the page, to bring the reader into a world bigger than what they expected. If the poet can use the poem to manipulate not just the words on the page but the space outside the poem, is there anything more awesome than that?

 The old masters are old masters for good reason. I constantly fail to write the poems I want to write, whether it's because of a craft related failure or a lack of taste. For some reason, the poets of China and Japan reinvigorate me when I feel defeated and humble me when I become too proud. The Spring of My Life is a book that I constantly revisit. The feeling I get when reading these poems is a feeling I seek in other books of poetry and a feeling I aspire to share to my readers. Maybe one day, I will succeed, but until then, always the struggle.

***BARBARA SABOLJoy, Sorrow and Every Moment In Between: Jane Hirshfield's The Lives of the Heart 

There is a good handful of poetry books I return to―for comfort (Kunitz, Merwin), for inspiration (Millay, Yeats), for wisdom (Hopkins, Rumi), for sonic brilliance in the nearly-edible vocabulary, the sheer rhythmic flow of a line (Dickinson, Heaney), for a well-wrought narrative (Bishop, Haas), for the exalted pleasure of discovering one's own perceptions exquisitely expressed (Glϋck, Doty). Any one of these poets could serve as exemplar "touchstone" poets. The one poet I keep closest, however, read again and again, the poet whose work embodies all of the above qualities, whose poems resonate into my day, is Jane Hirshfield. I own most of her books, including her collections of fine, illuminating essays. Of her books of poetry, The Lives of the Heart, published in 1997, has long represented a standard of poetry making to me, and stands out in high-relief on my bookshelf. Its pages are yellowed and the sumptuous cover holds a permanent curl at the bottom right-hand edge. What defines this collection, in particular, as my touchstone book of poems, is only secondarily its clear cohesion around the conceit of heart-as-symbol, its accessible diction, its beautifully rendered images, its philosophical and spiritual depth. Each time I re-read certain of the poems, I am struck anew by the quiet yet authoritative voice that layers meaning and image, image and meaning, such that I discover yet another strata of connotation, of connection to the poems' sensibility and sense enacted by its original and beautiful language. The poems ring true, the clapper chimes in fresh tones, even if I've read that same line five or fifty times.

 The collection is organized in four sections, each a full complement of one heart-theme: I) Heart Starting and Stopping in the Late Dark; II)Not-Yet; III) The Sweetness of Apples, of Figs; IV) Each Happiness Ringed by Lions. The four sections together present the full scope of emotional and spiritual responses to the world, to loneliness, loss, longing, joy, via a heart metaphor.

 A parallel theme of mortality and the inevitable tension that death/loss imposes on our waking lives, our joys, runs through the book. In the poem, "Not-Yet," the speaker turns her "blessings like photographs into the light," while "over my shoulder the god of Not-Yet looks on:/Not-yet-dead, not-yet-lost, not-yet-taken." The speaker accepts the temporary nature of her blessings: "I move my ear a little closer to that humming figure,/I ask him only to stay." The undertone of mortality completes the full circle of life, as enacted in these poems; eventually both "salt heart" and "abundant heart," in their ardent beating, says the god of Not-Yet, will someday cease.

 The book opens with the title poem as prelude to the collection; it presages the themes of each of the four sections in startlingly beautiful, textured images:

The Lives of the Heart 

Are ligneous, muscular, chemical.
Wear birch-colored feathers,
green tunnels of horse-tail reed.
Wear calcified spirals, Fibonaccian spheres.
Are edible; are glassy; are clay; blue schist.
Can be burned as tallow, as coal,
can be skinned for garnets, for shoes.
Cast shadows or light;
shuffle; snort; cry out in passion.
Are salt, are bitter,
tear sweet grass with their teeth.
Step silently into blue needle-fall at dawn.
Thrash in the net until hit.
Rise up as cities, as serpentined magma, as maples,
hiss lava-red into the sea.
Leave the strange kiss of their bodies
in Burgess Shale. Can be found, can be lost,
can be carried, broken, sung.
Lie dormant until they are opened by ice,
by drought. Go blind in the service of lace.
Are starving, are sated, indifferent, curious, mad.
Are stamped out in plastic, in tin.
Are stubborn, are careful, are slipshod,
are strung on the blue backs of flies
on the black backs of cows.
Wander the vacant whale-roads, the white thickets
heavy with slaughter.
Wander the fragrant carpets of alpine flowers.
Not one is not held in the arms of the rest, to blossom.
Not one is not given to ecstasy's lions.
Not one does not grieve.
Each of them opens and closes, closes and opens
the heavy gate―violent, serene, consenting, suffering it all.

One poem that catches my breath with each reading, and that I'd like to share here, is "Not Moving Even One Step," in which longing and emotional fulfillment are enacted by the figure of a solitary horse in light rain:

Not Moving Even One Step
The rain falling too lightly to shape
an audible house, an audible tree,
blind, soaking, the old horse waits in his pasture.
          He knows the field for exactly what it is:
          his limitless mare, his beloved.
          Even the mallards sleep in her red body maned
          in thistles, hooved in the new green shallows of spring.
Slow rain streams from fetlocks, hips, the lowered head,
while she stands in the place beside him that no one sees. 
The muzzles almost touch.
How silently the heart pivots on its hinge.

How strange and yet natural that the "she" horse appears in the second stanza. It is the old horse's open-heartedness to love's possibilities and mysteries that allows the female horse to inhabit the empty space that only he, in his blindness, can see. And how quietly and surely that last stanza completes the poem, with the impossible observation (unless it is the heart that perceives the muzzles almost touching) in the simple sentence in the penultimate line, followed by the philosophical musing of the closing line. Jane's poems seem to turn on insights such as "How silently the heart pivots on its hinge," which carry a contemplative quality through the collection, adding a multi-hued resonance.

A new book of poems by Jane Hirshfield, titled The Beauty, will be published this March by Knopf. If it's possible for another book to rival the full emotional and spiritual range found in The Lives of the Heart, it may be this newest. I relish the idea of another book of Jane's; another collection that promises to express the unarticulated and private self―poems that, as in "Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight: ". . .look back from the trees,/and know me for who I am."