Women in the Wilderness

Each Happiness Ringed by Lions: Selected Poems, Jane Hirshfield
[Bloodaxe, £9.95]
Desesperanto: Poems 1999-2002
, Marilyn Hacker
[W.H. Norton, £9.99]
Bringing Together: Uncollected Early Poems 1958-1988,
Maxine Kumin
[W.H. Norton, £9.99]

Jane Hirshfield's 'Each Happiness Ringed by Lions' is a gorgeous selection, and a luminous surprise for those like myself who have only come across Hirshfield poems in anthologies. Hirshfield is an intelligent poet, and an acutely perceptive one, but her writing is typically limpid and artless, concerned with divesting itself of over-complication and unnecessary sophistication, and instead finding the resonant, breathtaking silence which rests just behind the superficial fabric of our busy worlds. To an extent of course, this is what all poetry is about: hinting at the universal, undifferentiated silence of existence. It is way of using language which lets us perceive both its beauty and its ultimate inadequacy. Hirshfield does this to a remarkable degree and in her best poems achieves a hushed awe in a setting of complete simplicity.

'It is a simple garment, this slipped-on world' she writes in 'The Task'. And many of the poems evoke a world of plain human existence, the unspoiled natural world, through which mystery can more easily be glimpsed. So we have a narrator who sits eating toast in the mornings, or pan-frying potatoes in her log cabin at night, a poet who has a deep affinity with nature, who contemplates and consults the heart in all moods and circumstances. Nature holds the most beautiful of silent insights: I loved the sudden wonder in 'A Breakable Spell'; a word is on the tip of the poet's tongue - 'trying window
/ trying egret', and manifests itself into a glimpse of unity:

     For a moment
     she stands with her
     elegant legs
      black in the water.
     Below her, another looks up.

     My love,
     there is no sound between them.

But there is a pleasing paradox in Hirshfield, too: for all her simplicity, there is much culture in this volume, insights from Voltaire, Bellini, Chinese and Classical philosophy, Chekov, Novalis - but the learning is worn lightly, as one would expect. It is used to evoke wisdom rather than display knowledge for the sake of knowledge. In addition, Hirshfield acknowledges that it is sometimes in the tangled complexities of the human mind and heart that wisdom is best learnt: 'stay facetedÉ / in the many and season-stung minds, the battered salmonskin/peeling its sky's flung rind, the blossoming strife' ('Empedocles' Physics'); akin to MacNeice's celebration of the 'drunkenness/ of things being various'. And amid the world's brokenness one can hardly form a foolproof plan for enlightenment, but neither can one give up on its happening: ''Enlightenment,' wrote one master,/'is an accident, though certain efforts make you accident-prone' ('Inspiration'). This certainly rings true for me, both as a creative and as a spiritual rule of thumb.

'Heart' and 'Love' are often personifications with their own agency in the poems - just occasionally I feel this itself becomes a potential obstacle to the simplicity of Hirshfield's work. We are not so used to it in English language poetry. But there is immense beauty in this selection; with perhaps the shorter poems, such as the title poem itself, providing the most breathtaking glimpses, like a quiet lightening flash over an apparently unremarkable landscape, making all its inhabitants look up.

Moving on to Marilyn Hacker's Desesperanto, I was hard pressed to find any connection; such is the difference of register, of context and outlook. First, and most obviously, Hacker is a formalist through and through. She is an eloquent sonneteer, and complex rhyming iambics so predominate that I felt these poems were in some ways the preserve of the connoisseur. The ostensible context of the writing is not always easy: if you know Paris, if you know your French poets, your wines, your classical music, ok: otherwise this collection could seem a little perplexing, a little precious. I didn't really warm to the frequent recourse of the narrator to fine wines, hot baths, Montaigne and Couperin. I was also a little uneasy with recurring references to disadvantaged immigrants; I knew the narrator identified with their state of dispossession, of alienation, but it felt uncomfortable to be so much an observer, so little an intimate of these characters.

But of course, below this veneer is the real heart of the poetry; the grief and loneliness, never specifically described, which is bearable only through the high formalism of these many elegies and sequences. The purpose of poetry sometimes is to provide grief with an outlet, but one that is sufficiently structured, sufficiently cool, as to give sorrow words that can contain the unendurable. 'Form/ is one rampart of sanity' ('Paragraph for Hayden'). And with this key the poems open somewhat and reveal a good deal of integrity. Sanity is not happiness, however; it is not celebration. In a world where 'the night progresses like chronic disease' ('Migraine Sonnets') the best one can hope for is the restoration of balance: 'Though the plants can't bask/ in heat, darkness delays, and they discern/ what equilibrium they can recover' ('Sonnet on a line from Venus Khoury-Ghata'). I was rather reminded of Freud commenting he could do little for his patients other than help them re-attain the general levels of human misery. But some of Hacker's pieces are indeed admirably beautiful; carved out of verbal marble but satisfying as monuments of deeply felt loss.

Maxine Kumin's previously uncollected collection of early poems is different again: a volume which has a sense of disparateness, but also of progress, and an increasing clarity of cadence and context - I hesitate to say voice, as poets shouldn't be confined to a single voice, but there is a pleasing sense here of finding a vocation, at least. So we begin with whimsical poems entitled 'tonight' and 'food chain' and end with the witty and assured '1984: the poet visits Egypt and Israel'. Kumin embraces her Jewish identity but maintains an affinity for all spiritual seekers, all 'characters'.  'Now God forgive us where we live/ the ways we love are relative' ('For Ann at Passover'). There are many occasional pieces, where a narrative 'I' reflects on the quirks of passing humanity. I liked the more sustained poems with interesting metaphors and narrative structure - 'She is going back/ to the cash register of an old marriage./ He sees her ringing up daysÉ' ('The Lovers Leave by Separate Planes'); there are also some poignant personal poems, on, for example, the death of Kumin's father. But I do find it rather difficult to locate much coherency, to identify the compelling qualities in this volume; it is rewarding to graze through and will be rewarding for those who know Kumin's work, and perhaps in time its magic - milder than the other two volumes reviewed here - will speak more clearly to me, too.

               © Sarah Law 2005