Berkeley Times on May 21, 2015

Newspaper Column

The Berkeley Times

As appeared in the Berkeley Times on May 21, 2015:


“We wander the roof of hell, choosing blossoms.” — Issa

No way does this bookstore resemble hell! Mrs. Dalloway’s, 2950 College Avenue. is clean, attractive, with elegant script along the wall: “Mrs. Dalloway decided to pick her own flowers.”

These one-liners from Jane Hirshfield, like the quote from Issa, suggest how poetry awakens our lives.

“Beauty unbuckles pain’s armoring.”
“Poetry startles its reader out of the general trance.”
“Waking with the awareness that the future cannot be predicted.”

Hirshfield means we can’t predict the next second, and that means your life. This homily is a profundity, rarely noticed because it’s omnipresent.

Hirshfield revealed that Plato thought poetry “escapist.” Her audience though, a hundred-and-thirty-plus people, was in rapt attention. Most were well-to-do, half were gray, balding, or elderly, with a number of twenty- and thirty-somethings, no Latins that I could discern, and no African-Americans.

“There were times my life and I made jokes together…
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off our clothes on
our tongues from”

Hirshfield was intent on charming her audience. But remember, the most enlightened person may appear the most ordinary. Hirshfield did appear ordinary: matronly, with hair carefully done up, a red and brown scarf.

She read a poem-conversation between herself and her skeleton.

“When I danced,
you danced.
When you broke,
…What did I know of your days,
your nights?…
You who held me all your life
in your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.”

Hirshfield is a dedicated Buddhist and this went unmentioned, not in her patter, not in her book promotion. Has she abandoned her practice? I think not. She might wish her poems be appreciated without our knowing where they come from. Without a label. Hirshfield forewent questions and answers so we couldn’t ask.

I did ask people what they appreciate. “Simplicity.” “Beautiful still lifes.” “Olives and oranges.” “Mindful playfulness.”
All true. But mainly Hirshfield presents two things: an awakened consciousness and uber-accurate, unfleshed bits of life.

“I wake early,
make two cups of coffee,
drink one,
think, go back to sleep,
wake again, think,
drink the other.”

How many years meditating before, avoiding the day’s concerns, one can write so exactly what is? Twenty years, I’d guess.

“This poem is haunted from the edges by the fact that we are still at war.”

We live on the roof of hell, and Hirshfield shows us blossoms.

Upper-middle class white America needs these bits of ordinary life, bits that are somehow enough, and comforting. Will the next reading be as reassuring? Find out at