Thursday, 7 May 2009

Happiness Ringed by Lions

I'm currently reading Jane Hirschfield's Each Happiness Ringed by Lions, which is pretty marvellous as collected poems go. Her style is simple, conversational; the syntax flows with conventional punctuation, unlike, say, Alice Oswald (of whom more anon). The poems tend to the confessional: there's a whiff of the classical concerns of Anne Carson, but without Carson's lurid air of the psychiatric ward. Even more, there are echoes of Pauline Stainer's work, but without her visionary permutations of medieval Christian imagery and fondness for the surreal and elusive. Hirshfield and Stainer share a kind of clear-eyed sobriety, speaking from a fulcrum-like place of simultaneous involvement and detachment. It is no surprise to find that Hirschfield has long been a student of classical poetry (echoes of the archaic Greek poets recur) and of the poetry of Japan and China: the aesthetic harmony is unexpected and very pleasing. Take these epigrammatic lines:

Grief and hope
the skipping rope's two ends,
twin daughters of impatience.

One wears a dress of wool, the other cotton.

(from 'Nothing Lasts')

This could easily be one of Guy Davenport's translations of a fragment of Archilochos:

Fortune is like a wife.
Fire in her right hand,
Water in her left.

(G. Davenport, Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950--1980, p. 23).

Particularly tart is the Heracleitian aphorism: 'For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame', which concludes a subtle meditation on the unknowability of others' interior lives.

Hirshfield has a Buddhist's concern with non-attachment, craving, and habit. I could quote any number of these still, clear poems, but the one that has stuck in my mind the most is an atypical prose-poem.

Linnaean Problem

I have been wondering why there is no name for that part of poetry's music which is not rhythmic. It is simple to say 'meter', 'drumbeat', 'stress'---but what is the other half called? Prosody, 'sound', melopoeia---each covers both. Rhyme is merely a fraction; assonance, consonance, tune mean only themselves. Perhaps it is like the problem of horse and rider: Easy to have a horse with no rider, impossible to have a rider without, grazing somewhere nearby, a horse. Time exists without the scented, muscular body travelling through it, but no planet, parrot tick, leopard lives free of time. Even the purest singing signals a maculate conception, within an imagination schooled by passage. And so that part of poetry's music made by the untempered mouth, breath and throat remains, without the measuring hoofbeat, uncapturable silence. A mockingbird's song heard in a mirror; the shadow a dog's night-barking leaves on the dark.


Anonymous said...

Rats: had immediate plans to steal 'Happiness Ringed by Lions' for a book title until I twigged it was Hirschfield's (and also better without the 'Each' I think).

'For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame' ... must read her soon myself. Sounds like my kind of thing.


Anonymous said...

Possible variations on a theme:

Mild Embarrassment Ringed by Lemurs

Ontological Redundancy Ringed by Tasmanian Tigers

"Did I leave the gas on?" Ringed by Canaries

Ennui Ringed by Emperor Penguins

Spring Sale Fever Ringed by Hyenas

Flatulence Ringed by Hippopotami

Hubris Ringed by Excitable Giraffes

Epiphany Ringed by Ferrets

Death-in-Life Ringed by Fruit Flies


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