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Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The First Book, Alaya

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March 13, 2017


Jane Hirshfield’s first book of poetry was part of the Quarterly Review of Literature’s poetry series of 1982. “Alaya” on the one hand means “home” but also is, Hirshfield has said, “a Buddhist term meaning ‘the consciousness which is the storehouse of experience,’ of memory. . . .the place where seed-grain is kept.”

“The Gift” from Alaya points in the direction of Hirshfield’s tendency in her later work to objectify all reality, even the personal:

From how many hands

your body comes to me,

and to how many will I pass it on. . . .

Here “your body” comes, not “you come to me,” and the speaker will pass “it,” the body, on, instead of passing on such things as his memory, his influence, or even his love. The poem is remarkable for its early mature handling of imagery and phrasing. The person addressed, for example, exaggerates “nothing” and leans “into the wind” and is “lost/but like a flock of geese.” But, of course, flocks of geese don’t really get lost. The poem ends as many of Hirshfield’s poems do, and as many poems written in writing workshops often do, with a significant metaphor to draw meaning from the experience of this poem:

Slowly now,

lift the lid of the box:

there is nothing inside.

I give this to you, love. . . .

The movement of the poem, then, would ordinarily be seen as a movement from the physical, the body, to the immaterial, the soul, but a Hirshfield poem, perhaps because of the poet’s Zen beliefs, will not distinguish between physical and immaterial. The soul and body are indistinguishable. Despite the objective displacement of the self in “The Gift,” however, much of Hirshfield’s early poetry maintains a personal point of view both in Alaya and in her next book. Nevertheless, “The Gift” has become one of Hirshfield’s most anthologized poems and one often posted on social media.

My next installment in this series will be March 15. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner


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