The Alchemy of the Everyday:
A Review of Jane Hirshfield’s Come, Thief

Reviewed by Maggie Blake

Come, Thief

Jane Hirshfield
Knopf, 2011
112 pages

Come, Thief
is Jane Hirshfield’s latest poetry collection, her ninth published over the last thirty years. In 2012, Hirshfield was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, an honor that well reflects her accomplished career. In addition to being a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 2001 collection, Given Sugar, Given Salt, her work has also been included in seven editions of Best American Poetry. Further honors include the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by the Academy of American Poets in 2004, the Poetry Center Book Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations.

It would be easy to claim that Hirshfield, in this most recent collection, is concerned primarily with the physical. From the first, meaning is rooted in the specific, tangible objects of her consideration: a French horn, a maple tree, a pear. The table of contents reads almost as a strange, disarming shopping list. That easy claim is, however, wildly insufficient.  

Nowhere is this clearer than in the poem, “Fifteen Pebbles.” Its discrete sections strip poetry to one of its deepest roots: metaphor. When presented with metaphor, readers are often left in the vehicle, tenor implied, perhaps glimpsed. Not so here. Here the tenor is celebrated and displayed. Yet the brash display of intention does nothing to dilute the images. And like pebbles taken from a walk and held in hand, the images remain, warm from touch and consideration. The section entitled Perfection of Loss reads: “Like a native speaker/ returned/ after long exile/ quiet now in two tongues.” It is not a riddle, but it is a weight that remains in the mind, a gift.

Taking a step beyond even that amount of clarity, Hirshfield at times relies on the more accessible device of simile, yet the directness of the accessibility creates urgency, not complacency. When “All the Difficult Hours and Minutes” begins with the lines, “All the difficult hours and minutes/ are like salted plums in a jar,” it is the unexpected nature of the connection that provides the depth and grit, not the complexity of the device deployed. The reader hurtles through the remaining four lines, needing the expansion and clarification they promise in the statement that “[j]ust so, calamity turns toward calmness.” However, as with previous poems, the poem ends not on this insight, but on insight deepened by a return to the physical world: “First a jar holds the umeboshi, then the rice does.” We have returned to the umeboshi, the salt plums, and just as their meaning has deepened, they also moved beyond the jar of the initial simile.  

And again, a mere few pages later, the final stanza of “Invitation” closes with three similes, each the answer to the line “But the invitation’s perfume?--/”: “Quick as a kidnap,/ faithless as adultery,/ fatal as hope.” The juxtaposition yields the power, not the construction. Given the immediacy of language, it makes sense that toward the center of the collection, in “Sentencings,” Hirschfield observes, “[a]ny point of a circle is its start:/ desire foregoing fulfillment to go on desiring.” The image is apt, as a reader could dip into Come, Thief at any poem and read until they reached that poem again, collecting these pebbles, these juxtapositions. But doing so would rob the reader of the insight of the final poem.

The collection ends with a twist: “The Supple Deer” voices not the speaker’s desire to move with the grace of a deer seemingly “poured through” a “quiet opening/ between fence strands/ perhaps eighteen inches,” but instead, the desire to be the fence, “[t]o be that porous, to have such largeness pass through” And in that turn, in that unexpected definition of her “accurate envy,” we see the larger magic at work on Come, Thief. With that greater understanding the reader starts again, turns to the first poem, “French Horn,” and sees not only the power of simile, but the power of alchemy, transmutation.  “[P]lum’s blossoms do not hear the bee/ nor taste themselves turned into storable honey/ by that sumptuous disturbance,” but nonetheless they are made into that sweet gold.

And here the insufficiency of saying these are physical poems shouts most loudly from the page. Such a claim presents, at its heart, a false dichotomy between the physical and the emotional. In these poems, the physical world is the expression of the emotional, internal world, not as a reflection but as a conversation, each deepening the appreciation of the other.  Deer do not exist solely as catalyst for meditation, but they are richer for it, just as we are. And that conversation dwells, as the title, Come, Thief implies, with loss. Loss is the titular “thief,” but it has been invited.

In “Stone and Knife,” “some griefs augment the heart,/ enlarge;/ some stunt...these losses are small./” There the stanza ends and the poem closes with the solitary line: “Others cannot be described at all.” Perhaps it cannot be described, but the poems understand both the pain and the inevitability of death. Rather than rage against it, Hirshfield redefines it through varied contexts. Through the close quarters of metaphor and simile, she opens it up. And just as she opens the definition, she opens us to have that “largeness pass through [us].”

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Maggie Blake currently lives and teaches in Atlanta, Georgia. She has studied at Stanford, Oxford, and Brown Universities and is now working toward her MFA in the Sewanee School of Letters program. Her poems have been previously published in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia, Town Creek Poetry, Switchback, and Foothill. Her work is also forthcoming in Tar River Poetry.


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