Brit Bennett, Jane Hirshfield and their simply stunning writing

Wednesday, January 31, 2018 - 6:12pm

One of my favorite events to attend on campus has always been the Helen Zell Visiting Writers Series. So when I made my way over to the University of Michigan Museum of Art to hear Brit Bennett and Jane Hirshfield read their work, I had high expectations.

The writers did not disappoint. Held under the soothing lights of the Helmut Stern Auditorium, Brit Bennett and Jane Hirshfield delivered readings filled with genuine emotion and gorgeous writing.

Bennett received her MFA from the University. The last time she did a reading at that podium was when she read an early draft of “The Mothers.” On Thursday, she read from the final draft of the book, now a New York Times bestselling novel and set to be adapted into a film by Warner Brothers, with Kerry Washington as the producer.

Her prose was simple but moving. Reading from the middle of her novel, Bennett took us through the lives of her characters, Luke and Aubrey, after their friend Nadia leaves town to attend college. Nadia’s mother recently committed suicide and Nadia dates Luke, an ex-football player suffering from an injury. Nadia’s God-fearing friend Aubrey meets Luke during his physical therapy, while Nadia is at the University of Michigan. Though I haven’t read her novel, I was completely immersed in the story after two sentences.

Bennett’s success with “The Mothers,” her debut novel, served as an inspirational moment for me and the many aspiring authors in the audience. Bennett’s lyrical writing is impressive yet effortless, and each sentence is packed with momentum: “So even though we hadn’t known where she’d come from, we’d understood why Aubrey Evans couldn’t stop crying when the pastor asked what gift she’d come forward to receive and what she’d whispered, salvation.”

I’m still wondering what happens to Nadia, Luke and Aubrey. If you’re looking for something new to keep you up at night, then Bennett’s novel may be the answer.

Jane Hirshfield, author of eight collections of poetry, also delivered an eloquent and uplifting reading. She stopped and took the time to talk through some of her concerns, ranging from politics to the environment to the everyday problems we face.

“One of the ways of navigating differences is being permeable to them. Walls don’t work,” she said.

Hirshfield’s poetry is a meditation on humanity. Though her poems initially seemed simple to me, looking back at them left me with questions and many interpretations. “Let the envious gods take back what they can,” from her poem “Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World,” is particularly chilling, and I can’t help but wonder who exactly Hirshfield is thinking about.

She talked about the background of her poem “Washing Doorknobs,” which appeared in The New Yorker in Oct. of 2010, explaining how every New Year’s Eve she thoroughly cleans her house, polishing each doorknob before ringing in the new year.

“Sometimes I go out and party too,” she said, jokingly.

Throughout her reading, it became clear that Hirshfield is an incredibly compassionate and gentle person, and finds herself deeply affected by societal issues such as environmental disasters. Many people in the audience hummed in agreement with her, appreciative of the opportunity to hear a discussion on these problems.

It’s always nice to see the growth of writers, and pairing Bennett with Hirshfield showed how far an author can progress with their initial passion for writing. Both Bennett and Hirshfield kicked off the series this semester on a high note, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.