Tremulous Arbor

A book of poems that protect the sacred role of language against the electronic encroachment of disposable words.

hirsch (photo credit: judi dermansky)
(photo credit: judi dermansky)
IN THE PREFACE TO HIS 1999 book of essays, “Responsive Reading” (University of Michigan Press), Edward Hirsch writes: “The books I love most – poems, stories, essays, novels – are books that have passed through a terrifying silence, that have crossed a murderous divide.”
Many of the poems in “The Living Fire,” which bring together new poems and poems selected from his previous seven volumes, address that silence, that divide.
In “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1945” (a poem that originally appeared in his 2003 volume, “Lay Back the Darkness”), the dark subject sits on stripped-down branches of language; branches from a Zen-like tree.
It begins:
Two suitcases sat on a forgotten shelf collecting dust
and waited to be remembered.
It’s as if the lines in this poem remain deliberately thin, mindful of the scrawny bodies of the children.
Hirsch’s “In Memoriam to Paul Celan” is starkly different, a muscular elegy.
Lay these words into the dead man’s grave
next to the almonds and black cherries
tiny skulls and flowering blood-drops, eyes,
and Thou, O bitterness that pillows his head.
The 61-year-old poet grew up in Skokie, Illinois, a town noted for its Holocaust survivors. (Both Hirsch’s parents were American born.) These portentous roots may also have forced their way into his poem about torture, “A Short Lexicon of Torture in the Eighties” (“The Night Parade,” 1989). Held precariously in its light, spiny frame, the work satirically tortures the language employed by high government officials and repeated by journalists to sanitize torture techniques.
Let’s take a seat on the parrot’s perch.
Let’s rock to the motorola with headphones.
Hirsch is not, it bears mentioning, a political poet. Very few political poems inhabit this volume. His subjects vary: a sexual encounter in a Skokie cinema as a boy; the taste of Krakow at dawn as a man; “The Odyssey”; The Dead Sea Scrolls; his father at the craps table in Vegas. There is also a slyly funny self-portrait:
I lived between my heart and my head,
like a married couple who can’t get along.
Some of the most satisfying poems in “The Living Fire” are the poems Hirsch writes about himself. They are written over many years and in many voices, wending their way from his earliest volume, “For the Sleepwalkers” (1981) to “Special Orders” (2008), in which “Self-portrait” appears.
We hear his remorse over the body’s insufficiency against a trampling psyche, in the poem “I Need Help,” from “Wild Gratitude” (1986):
I admit I’m desperate, I know
That the legs in my legs are trembling
And the skeleton wants out of my body
Because the night of the rock has fallen.
But the poet also stands back with wonder at this life of his. A wonder rendered in the uncluttered, sonorous lines that are his trademark.
In the ironically titled “I am Going to Start Living Like a Mystic” (“Lay Back the Darkness,” 2003), Hirsch writes:
Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.
The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field
each a station in a pilgrimage – silent, pondering.
Hirsch is an anomaly among poets. He is an author on whom the gaudy label “bestselling” has been bestowed. His book, “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry” has sold over 80,000 copies. A bestselling book about poetry in the US is, in itself, deserving of an Edward Hirsch poem on the unfolding of the improbable.
In another of Hirsch’s prose volumes, “The Demon and the Angel,” about the source of artistic inspiration (not a bestseller), one discovers insightful essays not only on poetry, but on another art form that surfaces beautifully at times in his work: painting.
In “Demon,” he focuses on Abstract Expressionist painters like Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell. (Curiously, Hirsch himself was never a student of painting or art history. His love for painting is rooted in his visits, as a young man, to the Art Institute of Chicago.) One finds no mention of the Abstract Expressionists in his “Living Fire” poems. There is, however, a long, somewhat eerie poem, about a famous painting by one of the 20th century’s best known figurative painters, Edward Hopper. In it, he looks at the troubled psyche of Hopper’s “House by the Railroad” (also from “Wild Gratitude”).
There are no
Trees or shrubs anywhere – the house
Must have done
Something against the earth.
This sense of exile at the edges (maybe another of the Jewish aspects of Hirsch’s poetry) is apparent in the poem “How to Get Back to Chester”:
I remember the greasy moon floating
like a tire over the highway, the last
stars flecked like dust on the window
of my father’s garage.
A trait Hirsch shares with other major American poets is his warm embrace, in poems and at readings, of the poets he admires and reveres. It is his way of watering the ancient tree of lyrical life to which he belongs.
Among the new poems in this volume is one to his friend Joseph Brodsky, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987.
Here are some of the lines from that poem:
At the dimly lit museum of the Far North
The subject was the poet’s internal exile,
Metaphysics versus History, and the fateful
Struggle between Poetry and Time.
A Cold War that will never end.
In “How to Read a Poem,” he whispers to his readers about to read the poems of Dickinson, Merwin, Akhmatova and Radnoti, among others:
Read these poems to yourself in
the middle of the night… Say them over to yourself in a place
where silence reigns and the din of the culture the constant
buzzing noise that surrounds us has momentarily stopped.
The same advice might be given to readers of “The Living Fire.” The poems in this book come together as a deep, tremulous arbor standing on the far end of the global culture of distraction. They try to gather in the many hidden lands within the commonplace. They protect the sacred role of language against the electronic encroachment of disposable words.
Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based freelance writer.