The Lives of the Heart: Poetry You Can Eat

The Lives of the Heart. Jane Hirshfield. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

After the experience of The Lives of the Heart–because that is all it can be called–I am looking forward to getting my hands on Come, Thief, The October Place, and Of Gravity and Angels now that I see what this woman can do. As I revisit my own poems in an effort to tweak and tighten, I find myself turning back to Hirshfield for inspiration. This post is well overdue as I finished this book last August, but in devouring these poems a second time, I realize that now is the perfect time for this post, actually, because of the time of year.

Hirshfield’s poetry is visceral and rich like a dark, juicy fruit. I thought I stopped to take in small wonders and subtle delicacies. I was so wrong. Her poetry is perfect fall and winter reading, next to a fire, with glass of red wine and some da capo warm in your belly. It is delicate and hearty all at once. You hold her poems on your tongue to savor them, and they fill you up.

Her words chime with grace and beauty. She asks striking questions through the everyday and domestic, like a mule’s muzzle (“Mule’s Heart”), the bend of a blue heron’s neck (“Hope and Love”), the scent of garlic cooking in oil (“Heart Pressing Further”), Chinese poetry in the morning (“Reading Chinese Poetry Before Dawn”), a dispassionate room (“A Room”), the taste of dark, ripe fruit achingly seasoned with a memory (“Beautiful Dawn”) or the scent of talc on a loved one’s ailing, infirmed body (“Talc”).

In an effort to persuade you to read her gorgeous, heart-stopping poetry, I will leave you with a poem (you can actually listen to her read it on this page!). “Knowing Nothing” is not one of her more edible poems, but it is definitely food for thought. There were many poems that struck me*, but I read this one about twelve times. The first five times I was just absorbing, trying to recalibrate my mind from the straightforward language of speech/my thoughts and prose to poetry. The next seven times were for comprehension. When I exclaimed how much I was obsessing over it, my boyfriend read it, tossed the book back, and said, ‘you don’t get it?’–much to my chagrin.

She says it in simple language, and I think I see what she’s saying in simple language, but every time I read it, there’s something more she seems to be saying. Without further ado, please read it, love it, and feel free to share your thoughts. Did you love it or hate it? Why? What do you think it’s about? Or, if you’ve read any of Jane Hirshfield’s other poetry, what do you think of her?

* “The Lives of the Heart”, “The New Silence”, “The Fire”, “Respite”, “The Key”, “Changing Everything”, “Lying”, “The Poet”, and all the poems mentioned above. This makes it seem like I fell in love with every poem in the book. In varying degrees, I did.


6 thoughts on “The Lives of the Heart: Poetry You Can Eat”

  1. Oh, how I absolutely love Jane Hirshfield. (And I love that you love her too!) I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said here. I’ve read “The Lives of the Heart,” “Come, Thief,” and “After.” And I hope to read every book she has eventually!

    1. I love that you love that I love her! 😉 All joking aside, I really do though, and I felt a blog post/rave about her was the least I could do to share her with others. I really want “Come, Thief” next. The cover is so pretty. I know I’m not supposed to judge like that, but I do. And I know you love that one, and since our tastes are pretty similar…

  2. This is such a good book review that I went to Goodreads and put the book on my to-read list before even commenting. So well written! Your line, “‘Knowing Nothing’ is not one of her more edible poems, but it is definitely food for thought,” made me smile. 🙂


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