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A fascinating journey with two women poets

Szymborska's work makes imaginative leaps, while Hirshfield's is analytical.

By Elizabeth Lund / April 18, 2006



Often poets don't look at the world straight on. They gaze down in order to glimpse something clearly. Or they peer in so they can see out. Such is the case with two new books by major women writers: Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska and After by Jane Hirshfield. Both women take readers on fascinating intellectual journeys, yet they follow very different paths.

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"Monologue of a Dog" will delight readers with its even quality. The poems work the way her earlier ones have, often beginning with a fact or an image that gets transformed into something grander.

Szymborska easily moves from small to large and back, always taking the long view. This ability is one reason the Polish poet has earned a large international following. Clear yet complex writing is another. Even a cliched subject becomes compelling in the hands of this Nobel Prize winner. In "Clouds" she writes:

Their trademark:
they don't repeat a single
shape, shade, pose, arrangement.
Unburdened by memory of any kind,
they float easily over the facts.
What on earth could they bear witness to?
They scatter whenever something happens.
Compared to clouds,
life rests on solid ground,
practically permanent, almost eternal.

Perhaps the depth of Szymborska's poems allows her to maintain a consistent approach. Rather than change her style, as many poets do over time, she explores different perspectives. In "Monologue" she writes from a dog's point of view, and then from that of a woman who is dreaming. She even explores the nature of the soul, claiming it's something of a gypsy:

No one's got it nonstop,
for keeps.
Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.
Sometimes
it will settle for a while
only in childhood's fears and raptures.

"Monologue" is a slim volume, yet the poems are so rich that readers will feel they've traversed a great landscape.

Jane Hirshfield takes readers on a long journey as well, but where Szymborska's work makes great imaginative leaps, Hirshfield's is more analytical. She uses imagery as a springboard to explore a mental landscape. The work is thoughtful, philosophical, building toward realization.

This continues a trajectory that began with her previous book, "Given Sugar, Given Salt." In that collection, her fifth, the writing was less mysterious, less open-ended than it had been. The same is true in "After." In the poem "Pocket of Fog," she writes:

In the yard next door,
a pocket of fog like a small herd of bison
swallows azaleas, koi pond, the red-and-gold koi.
To be divided must mean not knowing you are.
The fog grazes here, then there,
all morning browsing the shallows,
leaving no footprint between my fate and the mountain's.

What this approach allows her to do is grapple with difficult subjects - aging, loss, grief, destruction - while maintaining some measure of control. This is especially true in her "Assays," meditative accountings that explore language and emotions. In "To: An Assay," she asserts:

When I speak as here,
in the second person, you are quietly present.
You are present in presents as well, which are given to.
Being means and not end, you are mostly modest,
obedient as railroad track to what comes or does not.
Yet your work requires
both transience and transformation:
night changes to day, snow to rain, the shoulder of the living pig to meat.

Because she relies so heavily on the intellect, Hirshfield's landscape often feels more demanding than Szymborska's, who pulls readers in with her powerful imagery. There are times when one longs for the lushness and mystery of earlier Hirshfield poems.

Yet as each woman shows, the relationship between the world and the self changes, depending on the perspective. A long view can open up myriad possibilities, as can alternating between close looks and distant observations. A sideways glance also can allow a poet to see things others do not.

Perhaps this may be the most important lesson one can take from these books. Both women are master poets; both must follow their chosen paths.

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