Jane Hirshfield’s ninth book of poetry is an elegy to her lost sister and the world she used to live in, the world that had her sister in it. The collection was strangely uplifting, however; Hirshfield deals with the challenging topic of death by creating poetry that finds wonder in mundanity.
In fact, her book isn’t really about death at all. Rather, it is the aftermath of death in her own mind, the way she deals not with the death itself but with the way it changed her worldview. In her poem “Vest,” she compares her memory to a “pocket holding the day / of digging a place for my sister’s ashes,” then comes to a realization of her own mortality in the next line when she writes, “the one holding the day / where someone will soon enough put my own.” Death doesn’t hang like a dark cloud over “Ledger.” Instead, it intertwines with life — in nature, in everyday objects, in the author’s own ponderings. Throughout the collection, the poems work together to create a unified philosophy of how life goes on after death: by taking nothing for granted, by finding beauty in the everyday and by contextualizing a life in terms of nature.
Despite grappling with these complex ideas throughout the collection, Hirshfield makes room to play with form and sound. For example, in the section of the book with similarly titled poems like “My Doubt” or “My Dignity,” the final poem is called “My Silence.” Calling this piece a “poem” proves that it has pushed the boundaries of the genre, because there are no words after the title — just blank space. It forces the reader to reckon with actual silence, rather than its idea distilled into verse. Hirshfield also includes two “assays,” which at first seems like a misspelling of “essay,” because these pieces are essentially mini-essays, written in prose and in a somewhat academic tone. In a play on words that would require a google search for most readers, the word “assay” means to examine something in order to assess its nature. One piece, then, serves as a play on words as well as an extension of the meaning of “poetry” by its very inclusion in this collection.
Hirshfield uses the dichotomous framework of something either “continuing” or “not continuing” to express everyday things we take for granted. In the poem “I Wanted to Be Surprised,” she writes, “What did not surprise enough: / my daily expectation that anything would continue, / and then that so much did continue, when so much did not.” Implicitly, because of the context given by the rest of the collection, life is what “did not” continue for her sister; still, Hirshfield chooses to first highlight the remarkable fact that other things — most things — did. ‘The word keeps spinning’ is repeated to the point where the words lose their meaning. Hirshfield takes this concept and forces the reader to relearn it, writing, “I did not keep walking. / The day inside me, / legs and lungs, kept walking.” She separates her own experience from the rest of the world, sending them briefly on two separate tracks. In this way, her poetry produces a curious dissociative effect which demonstrates the walls trauma can erect in a person.
Environmentalism is characterized in this book not just as a grand and noble goal but a small, personal one as well. Nature is one of the ways the book deals with death — by placing it in a larger universal narrative of balance. She writes “Today, for some, a universe will vanish. / First noisily, / then just another silence” and then “Something else, in the scale of quickening things, / will replace it.” If the “universe” in these lines is a personal tragedy, she is reminding the reader — and to some extent, herself — that like “the glacier, / the species, the star,” things disappear. In relation to the existence of so many other things, that loss is relatively small and even expected.
The reconciliation of death and nature helps fuel the reverential environmentalism of the collection. Hirshfield establishes the link between the personal and the environmental early in the book, writing in the third poem, “I don’t know why I was surprised every time love started or ended” — a personal statement — followed immediately by “Or why each time a new fossil, Earth-like planet, or war” — a universal and environmental statement. By the end of the book, the mourning has moved from the personal to the global and perhaps to the political: “The facts were told not to speak / and were taken away. / The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent.” Hirshfield no longer simply grieves for the loss of someone in her own life — she grieves instead for the planet as a whole, condemning carelessness and ignorance in the face of ecological desperation.
Beautiful verse aside, several poems mention specific environmental concerns, like “freighters [that] carry their hold-held oil / back into unfractured ground” or “Fish vanished. Bees vanished … Arctic ice opened.” Hirshfield writes with a respect for nature and a moving plea for environmentalism that is all the more effective after the many-pages-long emotional primer of her own personal loss. Now compared to the impending loss of the planet, the ecological grief feels personal, as she says, “Hands wanted more time, hands thought we had more time.” Hirshfield’s subtle handling of environmental issues, rendered in masterful verse, forces the reader to think of climate change in terms of personal loss, rather than as an abstract and distant problem.