LUMINOUS THINGS Jane Hirshfield “A Story”


from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz, p. 42

Something about idiot selving calls to mind some considerations about no-self (one thinks of certain doctrines in Buddhist thought). There is a more intensely intimate attention to the idiotic which opens up the porosity—-the “fertile void,” as I put it. This is not a static substantial self (as usually understood). The idiotics of the intimate universal is more than selving and othering, for these latter both are in the porosity, both participating in (overdeterminate) being and the fertile void, too much and nothing much.

William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 456, fn. 1.

Jane Hirshfield is enormously successful. Few poets have reached her level of authority in American culture. Her success is two-fold, as a poet and as a teacher of Buddhism. So it is appropriate that Milosz’s headnote retells the Siddhartha foundation story and acknowledges his personal friendship with the poet. The theme of nature’s indifference and the role of compassion in Buddhism is further context for the reader.

The poem is likewise structured as if in response to the intimate universal. There is no attempt at rational unity. But Hirshfield is an old hand at the lyric narrative and how it draws the reader toward the abyss of the self. The poem reaches that point through a dialectic of points of view, increasingly “subjective.” Does the poem deliver the reader from the tendency in modern thought to resolve tensions through a variety of unities or “holisms” by which fact and language merge in an unstable but rhetorically potent moment?

The nesting structure of selves begins forthrightly in the objective opening. As we’ve come to expect from the lyric narrative, the next step moves into the equivocity of language. The “story of a small wild bird” has a generic feel of a fable. We are no longer in the world of Milosz’s “nature.”

The equivocity of language is double, both objective and subjective, to use outmoded modernist categories. The poem reinforces the hegemony of this dualism in the image of the beautiful dead bird. Its beauty has survived its death as anyone can tell who sees it there on the windowsill.

Enter the next selving voice, that of a little girl who responds to the universality of beauty by imaging the bird awakening from death. To further explore this equivocity as a matter of sense experience (the dichotomies of the poem involve those early modern dualisms the Romantics struggled with, only Hirshfield assumes them for the purposes of her story). Hirshfield’s voice is now emerging as a dimension of disbelief without undermining the voice of the narrative.

We are near the abyss now. The poem now turns to the point of view of the “woman.” First she sees what the child sees in the bird’s still, beautiful form. (Keats’s epigram about beauty being all ye need to know resonates here.) Hirshfield pushes the envelope now of the imagined response to the conflict between truth and illusion, a conflict where Buddha dwells. We move from seeming to “saw.” The woman “saw how.” How “the true,’ how the “true life”….

Seeing how! We’ve reached the final stage of the lyric narrative where the self yields to selving beyond itself. That’s the script. It’s usually capped by an image of non-objective/non-subjective radical otherness. What the woman saw showed in her face. She hid her face from the child. Why? To protect it from the complexity involved in seeing “the true life.”

The true life which “lifted/under the wings” which however beautiful are dead. Hirshfield has pulled out the stops of her craft. “Lifted” is perfectly imperfect as a word for what the woman understands, for the word compounds the ambiguity. “Under” bears a lot is structural weight here. Does it work for you? The difficulty of the image is reconfigured in the last phrase as simple complication. Fair enough. Hirshfield’s voice remains her own.

I cite the Desmond text to provoke thinking beyond the spell of the poem. The category “idiot selving” is idiomatic to Desmond’s metaxology. We like to mull over the idea of self with regard to the poem’s voice. It’s as if a new self emerges, not eclipsing the poet’s own voice but reframing it as other. Encouraged to think beyond classical reason and its doubles—-its universals and particulars—-we may slip into a holistic frames of mind that smudges the distinction between the primacy or firstness of the intimacy of the universal and the products of selving and othering. This process is abundantly illustrated in the narrative of Hirshfield’s poem. It is troubling on the level of the author’s intention, which may be caught up in its telling.

That is: Does Hirshfield construct an experience of holistic unity for the reader and then take it away? Does this manipulation fill out the negative vibe of her use of “woman”? Or is the woman Everyman who must suffer the illusion of beauty being all ye need to know?

Unresolvable questions.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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