I had read the book months ago. And then, standing in front of Edward Hopper’s “The House by the Railroad” at the Museum of Modern Art, I found myself trying to explain to a tango-friend from South Africa why this painting—one she wanted to walk past without more than a cursory glance—was important. I wished Edward Hirsch’s book, The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, had still been in my bag. His poem “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad” gets so much right about the painting, and so much right about the artist as well:
This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,
The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky,
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it.
There are many such times when I wish I this book were with me. The poems are chiseled out of plain language, soaked in warm light, and radiate wisdom. Although deeply felt, the writing is never sentimental. For example, when Hirsch writes about meeting his old football coach, dying of cancer, he turns the poem to his memory of the coach’s love for well-drilled execution of plays:
And I remembered the game in my senior year
When we met a downstate team who loved hitting
More than we did, who battered us all afternoon
With a vengeance, who destroyed us with timing
And power, with deadly, impersonal authority,
Machine-like fury, perfect execution.
Hirsch allows the tenor of this metaphor to remain unstated, so that we realize, as the passion of these final lines builds, that the cancer is doing to his body what the other team did to them. This kind of subtle, crafty turn away from raw feeling is also the key to one of the very best poems in the collection: “Special Orders.” It begins starkly: “Give me back my father…” and by the seventh line the poet is overwhelmed: “I don’t understand this uncontainable grief.” Yet, just at this moment of utter nakedness, the poem turns back to consideration of what the father actually did in running a container business: for whatever anyone needed, he would “sketch you a container for it.” Here the poem ends, having—paradoxically—contained the grief that was uncontainable.
Many poems in this collection dance at the edge of emotional nakedness—yet not always painfully. The world is also there to enjoy and praise. In “Wild Gratitude,” Hirsch plays with his cat and recalls Christopher Smart’s long and wonderful poem to his own cat Jeoffry: “the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving Him.” The simple life of cats, seen through the lens of the “wild gratitude” of Christopher Smart, opens the author to the holiness of the quotidian:
And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.
Hirsch is an American poet who, perhaps more than any other, has incorporated the sensibility of Eastern European poetry, especially that of Czesław Miłosz. He is a writer engaged with the world, and committed to communicating its mystery, its pain, and its capacity to evoke wonder. The language is clear and precise, yet the writing does not lack experimental touches. “Mergers and Acquisitions” takes us in a single sentence of twenty-five lines on a breakneck journey through the failures of contemporary capitalism, and ends in a surprising finish of reflective understanding: “there is something else that drives us… some unprotected desire, / greed that is both wound and knife, / a failed grief, a lost radiance.” And of the new poems presented here, “Dark Tour” is uniquely structured as a series of haikus, each set in a different city, each tracking the stages of a relationship.
In another new poem, “The Case Against Poetry,” the poet finds himself explaining Plato’s critique of literature to other poets, only to be distracted from his endeavor by the view:
night deepened in old windows,
swallows gathered on a narrow ledge
and called to the vanishing twilight,
and a beggar began to sing in the street.
Plato, with his focus squarely set on unchanging Forms, might not have been convinced. But Czesław Miłosz, who placed poetry on the side of the vanishing particular, would have been proud. Edward Hirsch’s The Living Fire carries on this tradition of the saving and praising powers of clear, well-honed language. So, even if they are not always in your bag, these are poems you will carry with you.