March 17, 2017
In October Palace, published in 1994, we finally see a fully mature poet, no longer a developing talent. Hirshfield now moves beyond the formulas of writers’ workshop poems and finds the unique voice and range of experiences that has continually brought her the prizes and grants necessary for a sustainable poetic career.
Perhaps the overall theme of October Palace is that every moment of one’s life possesses its own meaning. This theme can be seen, perhaps most obviously, in “Percolation.” The speaker is in the midst of wasting a day confined inside because of the rain. But as she meditates upon her confinement, and as she becomes aware of a frog croaking “a tuneless anthem,” she develops serenity from the conviction that: “Surely all Being at bottom is happy:/ soaked to the bone, sopped at the root. . . .” And she discovers that life-giving peace must be wrung out of all experience,
yielding as coffee grounds
yield to their percolation, blushing, completely seduced, assenting as they give in to the downrushing water,
the murmur of falling. . . .
In many of her poems Hirshfield enjoys relating narratives from various folk and historical legends. For example, in “A Plenitude,”one of my favorites, Hirshfield considers the nature of fullness, completeness—plenitude-by relating a common story from Renaissance art:
But there is the story, too,
of a young painter meeting the envoy of a Pope.
Asked for a work by which his art
could be weighed against others’, he dipped his stylus—
with great courtesy, according to Vasari—
in red ink, and drew a single, perfect O.
My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner