Friday, May 05, 2006

Poetry Friday: Jane Hirschfield

I've begun Hirschfield's book Given Sugar, Given Salt, but I've only read four poems, so not enough to comment meaningfully. I'm liking the poems, but I'm also feeling so awed by Mary Oliver that even good poems from other people aren't quite comparing. But I noticed one from Hirschfield in particular. In her book of essays Nine Gates, she talks about Buddhism a bit, and I heard from a friend that she's a practicing Buddhist, and that's what I thought about when I read this:

Red Berries

Again the pyrocanthus berries redden in rain,
as if return were return.

It is not.

The familiar is not the thing it reminds of.
Today's yes is different from yesterday's yes.
Even no's adamance alters.

From painting to painting,
century to century,
the tipped-over copper pot spills out different light;
the cut-open beeves,
their caged and muscled display,
are on one canvas radiant, pure; obscene on another.

In the end it is simple enough --

The woman of this morning's mirror
was a stranger
to the woman of last night's;
the passionate dreams of the one who slept
flit empty and thin
from the one who awakens.

One woman washes her face,
another picks up the boar-bristled hairbrush,
a third steps out of her slippers.
That each will die in the same bed means nothing to them.

Our one breath follows another like spotted horses, no two alike.

Black manes and white manes, they gallop.
Piebald and skewbald, eyes flashing sorrow, they too will pass.

The idea that there is no real self, that there's nothing stable and lasting and that we change from moment to moment and become strangers to ourselves -- that idea one can get from the postmodernists, but I prefer to get it from the Buddhists. Because the Buddhists talk about the illusion of the self as a way of ending suffering, not just as a philosophical idea. And the idea is that recognizing the fact that nothing is permanent, that everything changes and is in flux, can help us see that our attachment to things and feelings and ideas causes our suffering. In the end, actually, in the present too, what do our possessions matter? What does our status matter? What do our feelings matter? They will all be gone sooner or later, probably sooner, just like the breath I'm breathing now is already gone.

But this idea is hard to hang on to. It's all well and good to say I don't believe in a stable self or that my identity doesn't actually exist or that there is nothing permanent in the universe whatsoever. But I live and think as though the self is not an illusion and it's very hard to internalize the idea that it's otherwise.

That's what hard times are good for, I think. This spring has been rough for me, mostly because of problems at work, and it's when I'm struggling and feeling unhappy that I turn to the idea that this will pass, that there is no sense in getting so invested in this idea I have of myself because it's ultimately meaningless, that what matters is what I'm doing in the moment I'm in, not what I did in the past or what I will do in the future.

I like Hirschfield's poem because it makes me think about the things that troubled me in the past -- which I've now practically forgotten -- and I remind myself that some day the things I care about now will have faded into the past too.