The Living Fire
by Edward Hirsch (2010)
Knopf (2010)
256 pp

I have been acquiring more and more books of poetry in the last year. When I was an undergrad, I read new poetry frequently and with a lot of joy. Why is it that that is such a popular age for people to get into poetry? Or is that just my impression? Anyway, when I moved on, I moved away from poetry. This was not by design. I think I just stopped buying them and then felt I didn’t know what was going on any more. Now, sadly, I feel I don’t know what to say when I encounter poetry, but there are quite a few recently published books of poetry that I think deserve attention. Since I’m still trying to figure out how to approach Anne Carson’s Nox, let me give poetry a shot with this recent collection of Edward Hirsch’s poetry The Living Fire — indeed, this is Hirsch’s first selected collection, and I think it will be an American poetry essential.

Though I drifted away from poetry, Edward Hirsch has been writing it for long enough that I already knew his work. Also, as a prolific writer not just of poetry but also about poetry — for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, and most frequently (that is, weekly — but, alas, no longer) The Washington Post Book World — he is well known (relatively) by many who do not read poetry. I believe Hirsch’s ability to write broadly to a general audience finds its way into his poetry, which I find very approachable, though not simple.

This compilation pulls out selected poems from all of Hirsch’s past books, for better or for worse. On the one hand, these compilations detach poems from their original arc, if there was one, and makes them sit in unfamiliar company. On the other hand, such a compilation is great for those of us who probably wouldn’t go back and purchase all of Hirsch’s poetry from the last thirty-five years. This gives us some taste, and hopefully allows his poetry to be appreciated across a broader range of readers. Were it not for this book, and for Knopf’s review copy, I would probably never have gotten Hirsch’s poems in their original collections anyway, reading them instead one here and one there, all alone.

The Living Fire begins with thirteen new poems. I like the first poem in the book, “The Beginning of Poetry”:

Railroad tracks split the campus in half
and at night you’d like on your narrow cot
and listen to the lonely whistle
of a train crossing the prairie in the dark.

It’s a highly readable poem, one which evokes quite a bit in me. I’ve spoken of my undergrad years above. Well, for three of those years I lived in a small, second-story flat that sat about 15 feet from the train tracks. I loved hearing the train coming from far away, and it shook whole building when it went by. I wrote quite a bit about that train and those tracks. Little did I know just how common such behavior is!

I think one of Hirsch’s strengths is linking a mood or a yearning with a place or a very simple action. The next new poem is “On the Anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Death.” It opens with the “briny cold” of Archangelsk, a city in Northern Russia. He speaks of the “Arctic chill of the moon at midday” when “the sun shivered behind the smokestacks / Like a soldier frozen in place.” After this chilly opening, where one can practically taste the salt while shivering — all of which fits with my own preconception of such a northern city — Hirsch briefly speaks of Brodsky’s subjects in language that calls to mind the Cold War exile Brodsky suffered.

I’m not a fan, however, of all of the new poems in this collection. There’s one poem in particular that shows Hirsch’s genius and some of his weaknesses, which, if they are there at all, tend to be the result of some experimentation that didn’t quite land. The poem I have in mind is the linguistically playful thirty-part haiku cycle “Dark Tour.” Each part, except for two, is titled after some European city. The haiku themselves take their content from and play with the city’s name and form while they give a necessarily brief image of the city itself and (it’s incredible how he does this in just seventeen syllables) his own time in the city with a lover. The poem begins and ends with the city which is not located in Europe: “Concord.”

1. Concord

A discordant day
in the library leafing
through an old atlas.

The final haiku, also “Concord,” follows this haiku:

29. Salzburg

Chords of music, chords
of light in the salt castle.
Unexpected joy.

I think that all works very nicely, and there are some wonderfully playful and startling haiku in the cycle. But then there are the ones that didn’t quite work for me due to the force sometimes required to make the individual haiku come together:

7. Budapest

No sight of Buddha
but a history of pest-
ilence and beauty.

And this one:

11. Madrid

Mad at each other
in a romantic city.
Love got rid of us.

It’s not terrible, surely, but I think “Love got rid of us” is a stretch, a bit too obvious in its derivation from “Madrid,” and while it makes sense I don’t think it’s meaningful or poetic. Especially in relation to the other haiku, I found it a rather clumsy metrical phrase that throws off the rhythm. That may have been the point — the throwing off of the otherwise lovely rhythm; it just doesn’t feel good to me. Fortunately, the thirty-part cycle is mostly filled with pleasure, including this one which feels like it could have been written by Bash¯o:

27. Lucerne

Two things startled me:
the mountains over the lake,
your body at dawn.

By the way, this is a bit off the subject of Hirsch, but I would like to say that one of my favorite books of poetry is the $3 Dover Thrift edition of Classic Haiku. I immersed myself in that book, and this cycle, while not all to my taste, reminded me of the pleasures in this highly formal poetry.

Back to Hirsch; back to The Living Fire. Once we get past the new poetry, which is for the most part a pleasure, we go back to For the Sleepwalkers, Hirsch’s debut collection published in 1981. There we find the line “The weak survive!” in “Song Against Natural Selection,” which wraps up with the terrible beauty in which

losing itself becomes a kind
of song, our song, our only witness
to the way we die, one day at a time;
a leg severed, a word buried; this
is how we recognize ourselves, and why.

I think this is a good time to bring up another thought on Hirsch, just how well he meshes the melancholy with the sublime. Many of his poems are filled with some kind of mourning that is cast as a type of praising or joy. It can all go to that first poem in the collection where one almost basks in the loneliness of that lonely train crossing the prairie. To me, it’s like reading an Edward Hopper painting. (Full disclosure, I may have thought of that connection only because one of the poems in this collection is “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)” — there’s that house on the railroad). To be able to put that into words is a kind of joyful fulfillment. I found, also, that being able to read that is a joyful fulfillment.

We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness
and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised.

Now, I found this collection to be wonderful, just the kind of book of poetry I wanted. But I had the immense pleasure of reading a free copy. This book, as a hardcover, is priced at $27; that’s more than most new novels. Rest assured that this collection is also better than most new novels. In fact, it often left me feeling similar to how I felt when I was reading William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, one of my favorite books, though I can’t even say what that feeling is — some loneliness that feels like bliss, or something. It might be hard for those of us who already spend a lot of money and a lot of time in our attempts to read read read all the wonderful novels out there, but this book is worth the price.

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