by Jane Hirshfield
reviewed by Afaa M. Weaver
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. $25, 108 pages.
Review published in the November/December 2011 issue of Orion magazine
COME, THIEF IS A LARGE and compassionate gift to the reader. Such a gift comes at great cost, for the contemplative life is one of unique and unending sacrifice, and it is said in Buddhism that the mind is a mirror that must be cleaned daily. The revelations are grand but fleeting, requiring as they do the renewing of faith. Hirshfield makes a public renewal of faith here in a collection of poems that sparkle with the Zen of things that cannot be uttered but are. The poet extends to us the many rewards of the contemplative life in this marvelous book that is as much a work of beauty and simplicity as it is the evidence of an elevated mind.
In Come, Thief, Hirshfield takes on the task of establishing the present in a form that is, by nature, vulnerable to time, namely poetry itself. In “Contentment,” she writes of discovering the infinite wonder of a landscape, a wonder that is timeless:
I had lived on this earth
more than fifty years
before hearing the sound
of sixteen New Hampshire Reds
settling in before sleep.
Her ability to place a whole world in compressed, ironic understatement is the earmark of Zen-inspired expression. At the end of the poem, Hirshfield reminds herself of her own limitations as a human looking to intervene in nature’s processes by warning a hen of foxes, only to acknowledge that it is the fall of nighttime that signals the bird to seek shelter.
Hirshfield’s poems also find a middle ground between the larger landscape of political conflict and the personal landscape of our need to connect with one another to cultivate love’s ideals, to cherish each other, and fill the mind with love. In “Green-Striped Melons” she imagines a field of melons as a human metaphor. What she sees in the field is the weight of lives made heavy by the layering of life’s difficulties and joys, the things that will ultimately bring us to fruition. She writes:
are like this as well—
like a painting
hidden beneath another painting.
A clarity arises here that has the warmth of the corporeal. Ordinary things are both ordinary and unordinary, like the muscle of the human tongue that can utter words and articulate emotion although it “does not feel them.”
Hirshfield’s work is evidence of her wide and deep compassion as well as its subset, her creative fluency. Compassion, Hirshfield seems to imply in this book, is infinite. The poems of Come, Thief, gifts that they are, are poems I would want to read aloud in public to strangers. Come, Thief is as much the accomplishment of a life in poetry as it is of a life given to inner investigation of what it means to be a human being.