The Asking: New and Selected Poems

Image of The Asking: New and Selected Poems
Release Date: 
September 12, 2023
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“So many trained poems of reason in one volume create a real treasure.”

If bigness is a measure of poetry, or radius of impact let’s say, then Jane Hirshfield easily ranks among the giants.

Hirshfield’s The Asking: New and Selected Poems begins with new poems, generous in spirit as Hirschfield tends to be. More than 30 more pages of new work, each representative of the quintessential Hirshfield known for making poems that are good company, poems that enter our lives again and again.

As poets tend to do, Hirshfield digs around until she finds a speck of beauty in seemingly unbeautiful things. It’s charming and lovely, even surprising at times, in the right hands it’s sagacious, happy little Buddhas imbued throughout. This is true for Hirshfield’s poems old and new; the meditative and tranquil qualities carry the body and heart.

So many trained poems of reason in one volume create a real treasure. One great thing about a collection is the inclusion of an index. Although there aren’t any reference notes there is an index of titles. The collection includes just a few poems from Hirshfield’s early works written between 1971–1982 when Hirshfied was in her late teens.

More than 50 years later, Hirshfield’s lines may be less compact and more spare on rhyme. A careful study may uncover much more about the evolution of her work. Poets naturally evolve as do their poems, yet there’s something deeply consoling about moving between poems composed fifty years apart and easily detecting the source as the same voice.

Hirshfield’s narratives span five decades of deep attention. In “A Story” from Of Gravity & Angels, 1988:

            A woman tells me

            the story of a small wild bird,

            beautiful on her windowsill, dead three days.

            How her daughter came suddenly running,

            “Its’s moving, Mommy, He’s alive.”

            And when she went, it was.

            The emerald wing-feathers stirred, the throat

            seemed to beat again with pulse.

            Closer then, she saw how the true life lifted

            under the wings. Turned her face

            so her daughter would not see, though she would see.

This is an earlier poem, among many that brush up against faith but seem to transcend it, belief is built in. It’s what makes these poems, and Jane Hirshfield, so trustworthy, taking courage to declare that “the grip of life is as strong as the grip of death,” pointing out all the ways this is true—how what is terribly sad may also be undeniably joyful. Readers of Hirshfield know that she is a poet who doesn’t shy away from suffering. “Death is voracious,” but life, she points out, is voracious too; “it swallows the dead.”

Hirshfield’s poems travel the globe. They see nations and people, sometimes within the context of history. And she never stops at doom, though she does flirt with it, as in “Catastrophe is not only sudden.  / Hearts stop in more ways than one.” (“Pompeii,” Come, Thief, 2011).

Hirshfield’s poetry is influenced by her many years of Zen Buddhist practice. In The Asking the poet shows her many hearts. People are drawn to Hirshfield’s poetry for its accessibility, and what they stay for is the empathy and understanding of what it means to be human—what it means to “be.”

In so many ways, Hirshfield’s poems permeate our lives: they bless our weddings, show us why we must equate love with grief, they speak our own mythology and that of the Greeks’, they remind us to turn to the pleasures of skies, rivers and mountains while encouraging venture for the sake of venturing, and show us if we are open to it, how to greet the mystery of the self. Over hundreds of pages of poems all of this and more is accomplished, while at the same time, considering the significance of one tiny ant.

Both on and off the page, Hirshfield is an advocate for Mother Earth. She is an essayist writing the observations and wisdom of her craft not only as instruction but as a treatise on art. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations and from the Academy of American Poets. Her work is translated into 17 languages, and she has received many awards. In 2019, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Whether it's at the end of the day or at the close of a hard-fought year, this volume is a gift. The book’s title comes from a poem in which Hirshfield takes personal inventory in response to one of the most important questions we can ask in times of perceived powerlessness: What can I do?

With gratitude, The Asking is ours for the taking.