Come, Thief

Last night I went to Kepler's to hear the poet Jane Hirshfield read from her newest collection, Come, Thief (buy this fantastic book here or ask for it at your friendly neighborhood bookseller).

As any mother knows, if a mother wants to leave the house any time after 4:00 p.m., she practically needs the Jaws of Life to get her out of there. Between homework help and a late start on the spaghetti sauce, and a Husband who left work later than expected, I just about bailed on my little outing. But there was a voice inside of me that was clear and indignant: "What!? Not go!? Forget it. You ARE going, missy, come hell or high water." I wasn't going to argue with that particular voice. She sounded pissed. So, I left the three bears in care of each other for five minutes, and scooted up the peninsula.

(Don't tell Judge Amy on me. They were fine.).

And here I would like to pause to give thanks to the gods of traffic, who allowed me to get well into Palo Alto before hitting a red light: **O, traffic gods, I thank you. I realize I have now had my one lucky day in California traffic and that it will never happen again. Amen.**

This was the first time I'd gone to a reading given by a rock star poet and I wasn't sure what to expect (btw, you know a poet is a rock star if her/his book comes out in hardcover). I was kind of hoping for a mob scene -- you know, hundreds of people lined up on the street to get in. Instead, there were about forty people in a quiet room, every one of them (including me) wearing comfortable shoes. I took comfort in this pairing of poetry and gentle footwear.

One of my favorite moments of the evening was when the poet came in unassumingly from the back of the room and sat down as part of the audience a few minutes before being introduced. After a moment, people noticed her and she said something along the lines of "Oh, people actually know who I am!?" I suppose she may have been in doubt since the placard for the event had her picture above the name Jan Hirshfield. Um, oops.

Anyway, on to the poetry.

Well, what to say? The poems were beautiful and she read them beautifully and with reverence for the process of reading poems out loud to those listening, that sweet poetry transaction, the way poems are meant to be enjoyed. The "thief" in the title is Time itself, and many of the poems are moments of careful witness and attention to all things fleeting -- nature, friends, solitude, empires, species, days and weeks and years, this very life. Her language is simple (but not simplistic) and inviting: you want to walk right in to the room of her poems and make yourself at home, even though you are sometimes startled at what you find there: some new truth or beauty that you should've noticed by now, but never had.

Probably my favorite poem from the reading was "For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen," which I took as a case for making art. She told a great story about how she came to the poem after learning that the lichens, though small, do the essential work of bringing nitrogen to the forest canopy (by the way, she also said that all of her poems are fact-checked so the science is sound). Here are some bits of it:


"Marriage of fungi and algae,
chemists of air,
changers of nitrogen-unusable into nitrogen-usable.

Like those nameless ones
who kept painting, shaping, engraving
unseen, unread, unremembered.


Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in."


She talked about her interest in what she called malleability -- the idea that objective reality, when brought into a poem, can be "suppled" (her word) and made elastic; that what's real can shift and change  in a poem. This really resonated with me, and I think it's probably why I'm so drawn to magical realism in poetry -- to let that shape-shifting reality, that suppling of the rules, take us somewhere we'd never have gone if not for the poem.

I was also interested to hear her "read" her line breaks, which she did, subtly. She later talked about line breaks as a "musical notation" -- echoes of Denise Levertov, who wrote that "the most obvious function of the line break is rhythmic: it can record the slight (but meaningful) hesitations between word and word  that are characteristic of the mind's dance between perceptions but which are not noted by grammatical punctuation." Let the people say, Amen! Line breaks feel so important to me, but I've often heard poems read as if the line breaks were not there at all, rather than giving the half comma D-Lev, and Jane Hirshfield, grant to them.

(Okay, okay, all the non-poets in the readership are probably bored now, but I promise you don't have to care about malleability or line breaks to enjoy these poems).

After the reading, she sat to sign books. Here is where I became terribly shy, almost too shy to get in line to have my book signed. What am I, in junior high again? I got in line and mustered the courage to tell her how much this poem has meant to me, and she was kind and genuine and gracious. And it's kind of cool to have a signed copy of the book.

Reader, all in all I'm glad I made the effort to leave the house, leave the children unattended, and get me some live poetry. Wish you could've been there. In your most comfortable shoes.


drew said...

I love Jane Hirshfield too. So glad you carved time -- and missed red lights -- for this literary outing.

Ms. WK said...

You had me at poetry reading. Thanks for the beautiful rendition of the whole evening... that to me was your poetry. Felt like I actually was there with you.
I remember that voice that was talking to you... I like her!
Loved the line break discussion... I will come back to this again.
The traffic gift you were referring to is the "time warp" if you recall -- sometimes hit between HC and Sherdan on a late night. Sometimes not.

Molly said...

Thanks, Drew, the outing was worth the effort!

Ms WK, would love to talk linebreaks with you. Thanks for the memories on the Time Warp -- I had actually forgotten about that :).