Having translated several pre-haiku poets (including Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu in the now-classic collection The Ink Dark Moon), the renowned American poet Jane Hirshfield has obviously been inspired to follow such tracks on her own. Like the hokku poets, she fills her latest collection with images from the natural world and addresses such typically Japanese themes as impermanence and loss. The poem “The Promise” opens with these stanzas:
Stay, I said.
to the cut flowers.
their heads lower.
Stay, I said to the spider,
embarrassed for me and itself.
The poem continues to evoke impermanence, moving from short-lived beings in the outer world to the poet’s own body and to the earth itself. Then she concludes:
Stay, I said to my loves.
Many of Hirshfield’s poems have this kind of surprise at the end, a departure from something we may have thought we saw her building toward so carefully. Even before we reach these surprises, her poems have profound messages, such as this one’s illustration of impermanence and the futility of trying to make things permanent that can never be. But it is in these final twists that she really catches us off guard, makes us go back to the beginning and read again, to make sure that we have understood the lessons unfolding in each stanza, each line . . . sometimes each word.
In “Perishable, It Said” Hirshfield writes of impermanence again, this time in an unexpected extended metaphor:
Perishable, it said on the plastic container,
and below, in different ink,
the date to be used by, the last teaspoon consumed.
I found myself looking:
now at the back of each hand,
now inside the knees,
now turning over each foot to look at the sole.
Then at the leaves of the young tomato plants,
then at the arguing jays.
Under the wooden table and lifted stones, looking.
Coffee cups, olives, cheeses,
hunger, sorrow, fears—
these too would certainly vanish, without knowing when.
How suddenly then
the strange happiness took me,
like a man with strong hands and strong mouth,
inside that hour with its perishing perfumes and clashings.
Nothing is permanent, as Hirshfield so eloquently illustrates. But her poems may come close, often using everyday images in surprising ways to impart lessons that are somehow both timely and timeless.