listening with jane hirshfield

As the year ends, I find myself amidst so much newness: new job, new city, new friends and faces in my life. I am still catching up with it all. It’s the kind of upheaval and momentum that makes me return to poems in a specific way; mainly, to relearn how to listen.

I was reminded of this idea of listening while reading an interview with Jane Hirshfield earlier this week:

What is the most important thing to do when reading a poem?**
Listen, without worrying too quickly about whether you understand or not. Give yourself over to a poem the way you give yourself over to your own night dreaming, or to a beloved’s tales of the day. And then, try to listen first to a poem the way you might listen to a piece of music — the meaning of music isn’t some note by note analysis or paraphrase, it’s to find yourself moved.

To sit back and be witness to a singular circumstance. To be still, and reflect only after all has been said. These are skills in life and in poetry.

cheese rackHirshfield’s knack for listening is on full display in this week’s poem, “Sheep’s Cheese.” This short poem accumulates its narrative details slowly, doles them out line by line with the same care as is being described. It’s the kind of lyric nuance that can be missed out on if read too fast.

There are resonances in poems and in life that are felt even without our knowing. Same as the man in the poem, whose arms “know the weight” of a weekly task, there is a part of us listening and tracking the effect of nuances, even when we’re busy looking away.

Sheep’s Cheese – Jane Hirshfield

In the cellar, sheep’s milk cheeses
soak in cold brine.
Once a week, a man comes to turn them.
Sixty pounds lifted like child after child,
lain back and re-wrapped
in their cloths on the wooden shelves.
The shelves are nameless, without opinion or varnish.
The wheels are only sheep’s milk, not ripening souls.
He sings no lullabye to them. But his arms know the weight.

from After (Harper Perennial, 2007)

**Check out the rest of this interview with Hirshfield here.


* autumning with jane hirshfield

Oyes en medio del otoño
detonaciones amarillas?

(In the middle of autumn
do you hear yellow explosions?)

— Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions


Neruda’s lines above evoke a pleasing moment of synesthesia, blurring the sight of yellow leaves with the sound of explosions. As the season changes, I can’t help but see such blurred moments more and more in life.

This week’s poem, “The Heat of Autumn” by Jane Hirshfield, works its materials on a similar level as Neruda’s question above. Housed under the concept of “heat,” the narrative of the poem draws its details together in a way that imbues meaning, connecting things in an active way.

The third line, for example, refers to the “apples” of one season becoming the “cider” of another. In doing so,  the first of the poem’s many little dramas is enacted. By the end, enough details and imbued meanings have piled upon each other (like leaves), that the “heat” of the title becomes a sensation on both a physical and emotional level.


The Heat of Autumn – Jane Hirshfield

The heat of autumn
is different from the heat of summer.
One ripens apples, the other turns them to cider.
One is a dock you walk out on,
the other the spine of a thin swimming horse
and the river each day a full measure colder.
A man with cancer leaves his wife for his lover.
Before he goes she straightens his belts in the closet,
rearranges the socks and sweaters inside the dresser
by color. That’s autumn heat:
her hand placing silver buckles with silver,
gold buckles with gold, setting each
on the hook it belongs on in a closet soon to be empty,
and calling it pleasure.

(from Hirshfield’s collection After, 2006)


Happy autumning!


* short lyrics: (pre)spring mix

As I am on the road – in Corpus Christi, Texas promoting Everything We Think We Hear to be exact – I thought I would do a short, fun post of some seasonal short lyrics. Could be that the winters in Cincinnati are tough that I’ve got spring on my mind already.

I’d like to say a special thanks to everyone who made it out to my readings this week. Thank you for braving a rather stormy week in Corpus Christi. A very special thanks as well to Alan Berecka and Tom Murphy for the opportunity to read at Del Mar College and TAMUCC, respectively.

Below are poems by Kay Ryan, Issa, Izumi Shikibu, and Edward Thomas. The Shikibu tanka is an old favorite of mine. I ran into it almost ten years ago in an essay by its translator, poet Jane Hirshfield. In writing about doing the translations for her book The Ink Dark Moon, Hirshfield’s essay broke down how in five lines Shikibu is able to present an image of enlightment (“moonlight”) reaching through to even the most materially impoverished life (“ruined house”).



Spring – Kay Ryan

It would be
good to shrug
out of winter
as cicadas do:
look: a crisp
freestanding you
and you walking
off, soft as


    The snow is melting
and the village is flooded

    with children.

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks

of this ruined house.

Izumi Shikibu**
The Cherry Trees – Edward Thomas
The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.
Happy (pre)springing!
*translated by Robert Hass
**translated by Jane Hirshfield & Mariko Aratani

* in the clear with Jane Hirshfield

Reading through an interview with poet Jane Hirshfield, I was moved by a concept she terms “clarity without simplicity”:

Yes, being clear without being simple is one of the poetic qualities I most admire in the work of others, and one I hope finds a place in my own.

I feel like this is one of the qualities that I strive to celebrate here on the Influence.

The phrase itself is clearly unsimple. For me, it implies some effort between the poet and the reader, an effort to not only get the words right but to come to them directly. The poetry in the poem a sort of clearing you have to find your way to, and which the poet clears.

Hirshfield’s poem below shows some of this in action.

* gang-related *
* gang-related *

Tree – Jane Hirshfield

It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.


Happy tapping!


p.s. Check out the Hirshfield interview, in which she also shares some insight into Zen and its influence on her life, here.

* Akhmatova & some news on the friday influence

Willow – Anna Akhmatova

 “And a worn-out cluster of trees.”

                                  — Pushkin


In the cool nursery of the young century,

I was born to a patterned tranquility,

The voice of man was not sweet to me,

But the wind’s voice I could understand.

I loved burdocks and nettles,

But the silver willow best of all.

And, obligingly, all my life it lived

With me, and its weeping branches

Fanned my insomnia, with dreams.

But – strangely – I’ve outlived it.

There’s a stump, with strange voices,

Other willows are conversing,

Under these, under our skies.

I’m silent…as if a brother had died.


This week on The Friday Influence: the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

Akhmatova lived under the reign of Stalin and consequently had her work censored and condemned by the government.  She is known best for her poems of witness during these times, notably the poem cycle “Requiem”.  I first discovered her work while reading Carolyn Forche’s book “The Country Between Us”.

The poem above was the first poem I came across when I laid her collected poems on a table at a bookstore.  I should point out that her collected is 948 pages long and so the book kinda flopped open to this poem.  There were a few weeks that summer where I repeated this exercise over and over again to sheer illumination.

In “Willow”, I am taken in by the power of the direct address.  There are some poets who send the “you” out in a poem and you can dodge it.  Here, the tone of the poem is such that you feel taken into the confidence of the speaker.  While the speaker does not speak to a “you”, it is felt no less distant.  I guess I could call it an indirect direct address.

Whatever it is, the poem pulses with it, and I read the last line for all its implications of loss.  The worlds traveled here, nature, human, dream – all ring in that last line.

This intimate address makes sense seeing as much of her early work is made up of love poems in this vein:

‘He loved three things, alive:’ *

He loved three things, alive:

White peacocks, songs at eve,

And antique maps of America.

Hated when children cried,

And raspberry jam with tea,

And feminine hysteria.

…And he had married me.

It takes not only nerve to say something like this but to write it, and write it well.


While thinking about Akhmatova’s intimate tone, I found myself thinking about the tanka poet Izumi Shikibu.  Something of Akhmatova’s connection with the willow and the heart can be found in this:


I watch over

the spring night—

but no amount of guarding

is enough to make it stay.

(Izumi Shikibu) **


In other news, my chapbook, The Wall, is officially out from Tiger’s Eye Press.  I am working on a page for this blog with excerpts and ordering information but for now please know info on how to order a copy can be found here:

Ok, fine.  I’m excited.


Happy exciting!


* translated by A.S. Kline here:

** translated by Jane Hirshfield, The Ink Dark Moon (read this!!!)