As I want to say in almost every one of my reviews, William Wordsworth wrote that ‘every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed’. The same, of course, is true of every book, of every poem. Every book is obliged to act as treasure map to the desert island of itself, guiding its readers towards the places it has stored its caches of meaning. These books, by Jane Hirshfield, Sean Borodale and Paul Durcan, each struggle in their own way the task with finding the perfect burial spot for their treasure, and with proposing the best way of digging it up.
In Jane Hirshfield’s book The Beauty, this struggle is characterised by a wavering between poems which aim to be meaningful, and those which aim to be significant. That is, around half the poems find their value in high-concept metaphorical play, in which the interplay of careful delicate images explore metaphysical or psychological ideas; they’re meaningful in the sense that they work to provide us with paraphrasable insight into how certain concepts function beyond or alternatively to the meanings usually attributed to them. Other poems, though, function more like zen koans, refusing transferable content in favour of an aromatic sense that the world is irreducible to our ideas about it. The impressive thing about The Beauty is that Hirshfield is able to exploit both modes successfully. Further, she’s able to carry elements of each strategy into the other, so that a feeling of eloquent mystery persists in her clever similes, and a feeling of solid consideration grounds her more abstract meditation.
‘Perspective: An Assay’ exemplifies the former type of poem. Hirshfield finds a list of images which are enlivened by their suspension between being both examples of, and symbols for, perspective; it ‘Makes one wall darker than the other, / leaving a corner. / Makes one leaf more red than another, leaving a tree.’ The poem ends with a ‘curious horse looking out / from behind the long-needled pine it’s been momentarily tied to / forever.’ The double nature of perspective as being invested in every moment of our subjectivity – essentially contingent and ephemeral – and yet eternal in our inability to escape for even a moment from that subjectivity, is brilliantly tied up in that sweet, nosy horse, poking out always from behind our eyes.
Poems like ‘The Spring’ seem to rest just across the border that Wallace Stevens – a noticeable forebear of Hirshfields’ – evoked by asserting that poetry must ‘resist the intelligence. / Almost successfully.’:
The rain is string
for wrapping a package no one knows
the inside of, they just keep trying to mail it.
Perhaps it is licorice. Perhaps it is kindness.
The package so large even wetness becomes an umbrella.
These lines also demonstrate Hirshfield’s compelling insistence that the physical and the abstract are more interwoven that we’re usually willing to recognise. Indeed, we’d be lost, she implies, in describing either without the aid of the other, licorice or kindness alike.
The Beauty isn’t without imperfections, though. The dogged earnestness Hirshfield employs does good work in investing her poems with a feeling of the constant proximity of profundity. But if the poise slips for even a moment she risks appearing almost absurd – something like the opposite of a Shakespearean fool, spouting a great sense which is ultimately meaningless. It’s rare, though, and in general The Beauty, in its gentle music and its deceptive simplicity, reaffirms Hirshfield’s status as one of the major poets of our time.
Sean Borodale’s Human Work has an analogous, if different, divide at its heart. Borodale seems conflicted throughout the book as to where, exactly, serious meaning is to be found. The commitment, it seems, from the title and premise of the collection – a wordly, daily journal of domestic duties, primarily food preparation – is to the humble significance of our individual part in timeless rituals of home and hearth. At its best, the book evinces a real genuine faith in the value of things as themselves, and Borodale is capable of finding a moving beauty in the profound quiddity of the apples and potatoes with which he works.
Too often, though, Borodale seems to doubt precisely that significance, and reach for the grandeur of classical myth, as if to shore up what he perceives as the unseriousness of his subject. It’s a move which is deadly to the faith in simple object and ritual which provides the value of the collection, and it runs throughout the Human Work like a fracture through a pane of glass. One of the things the book does valuably, for example, is to imply, without fanfare but solidly, gratefully, the family life moving around behind his words. And yet, when he claims that, in use of a garlic pesto they’ve made, that they
each time, remembered how the vapour
had burst from the pounded leaves
as Medea at the end of her crimes
into her own sentence, and by word vanished.
we think, ‘Really? Each time?’ Imagine a family all dwelling mournfully on the plight of Medea every time they sit down to a quick bowl of pasta, and the sense of the rich comfort of a working home evaporates. Like Medea. Into her own sentence, by word.
Elsewhere, Borodale writes ‘what is the trick? / To keep spirit and meal wetly mixed’, evoking Heaney, who looms over Human Work from the title onward: think of ‘love / like a tinsmith’s scoop / sunk past its gleam / in the meal-bin.’ Meal as the earthy stuff of life, the daily routine, into which love or spirit can be submerged, mixed. What Borodale struggles with, then, is in keeping this mix wet, of getting his grander, more abstract concerns wet with the gritty stuff of life, and vice versa. But he’s a strong poet when he’s reigned in his loftier impulses, when he’s writing about ‘the mute, incontestable fact’ of a mutton bone, or the ‘mute pale diagrams of anatomical apple’. Press the mute button on narrative interpretation, and Human Work is a significant step forward from his tedious, if on-trend, Bee Journal.
The mechanism with which Paul Durcan conceals the significance of his chatty, loose poems is apparently simpler than Hirshfield or Borodale, and is therefore much harder to discuss. Reading The Days of Surprise, the striking stylistic feature is how utterly free of poetic artifice the poems seem. They manage a kind of garrulous prosody, wielding anecdotes without appearing to feel the need to push those anecdotes into analogies or commentaries, without appending epiphanic imagery or dramatic changes in tone. The poems, though, do contain moments of poetic or emotional intensity, and Durcan’s project seems to be in pressing these instances down into the quick-passing flow of day-to-day life around the towns and cities of Ireland. When he abruptly mentions how, in the Actors’ Chapel, ‘The serrated tears of reality crawled down my face’, he proceeds immediately to swamp the image with specifics, with the obfusticating clutter of detail: ‘The vision of a young man from Tullamore, Country Offaly, / In a small day school in Dublin in the late 1950s, early 1960s’.
With this kind of confirmation that Durcan still Knows What He’s Doing, the affectless impression of the poems begins to take on another function – essentially, the function of charm. Much though it’s a cliché of Ireland, poetry and Irish poetry, Durcan’s book reads a little like a chat with a thoughtful, lively septuagenarian – up to and including the well-meaning but ultimately politically questionable series of poems Durcan gives to female narrators. The Days of Surprise carries notes of C. K. Williams, both in its moments of overenthusiastic, straw-mannish political satire (familiar from Williams’ early books), but also in its faith that autobiographical narration can cast light upon the society which has generated that narrator.
But it’s in the looseness – this charm, this ramble, this texture of thought and thing – that Durcan’s gentle but accomplished craft is displayed. When he needs to, he can shift into a resonant music: ‘I stood at the window staring at the tour-de-force performance / Of the choral forces of snowdrops’. And, gently, he can put these things to use. Later on in this same poem, the last in the book, in which the narrator ‘Attended [his] own funeral and burial’, he nonetheless feels that ‘the only significant event of this day / Had been the presentation by the snowdrops…’ – and it’s precisely the intensity conjured by the controlled vowels with which those snowdrops were earlier presented that allows us to believe him.
Ultimately, then, despite its significant length – its give and its dilutedness – or because of it, The Days of Surprise does remain charmingly open to, lost in, and gone on, the world.