Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In Praise of Coldness

I discovered the poetry of Jane Hirshfield recently and have been hooked ever since. I like the space she leaves for her readers to fill in. The connections she points to between images are neither so obvious as to be not worth making, nor so tenuous that her poems feel fragmented or meaningless.

Her poem, In Praise of Coldness (from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions: Selected Poems) is a case in point. It’s considered a virtue in modern poetry, particularly its North American variety, to exhibit coldness, to draw back from explicit emotion, particularly if you are writing on an emotional subject. If you turn up the emotional volume in a poem about death, illness, or depression, you’ll be accused of manipulating the reader.

For instance if you talk about “tears scalding your cheeks in waves of despair,” you’ll find readers telling you (rightly) that you’re going over-the-top – that tears don’t actually “scald” and that “waves” contain far more liquid than those falling tears at a funeral. Your images attempt to manipulate the reader into feeling the depth of your grief, but they aren’t true. They are sentimental manipulation. If you want to move the reader, you need to find some other way.

So Jane Hirshfield begins her poem by observing this “preserving dispassion.”

In Praise of Coldness

‘If you wish to move your reader,’
Chekhov wrote, ‘you must write more coldly.’

Herakleitos recommended, ‘A dry soul is best.’

And so at the center of many great works
is found a preserving dispassion,
like the vanishing point of quattrocento perspective,
or the tiny packets of desiccant enclosed
in a box of new shoes or seeds.

“Desiccant”, which contains ideas of both dryness and preservation, is the perfect image here, and illustrates this poet’s penchant for precision of image. I don’t understand enough about 15th century Italian art to fully comprehend the previous image, but “vanishing point” has an ominous air about it, a duplicity of meaning – the central area of coldness and dispassion is also the place of disappearance and evasion. Yet, the coldness is to be praised, and this tension inherent in the poem's title is tightened more and more as the poem continues.

She continues the next stanza with a typical deceptive simplicity.

But still the vanishing point
is not the painting,
the silica is not the blossoming plant.

And the coldness and dispassion is not the poem. It is the means by which the poem paints or blossoms, but not the end in itself. Paradoxically, the coldness helps to produce the heat of colour and scent and beauty.
As an aside, I love the effortless use of sound here – the point/painting/plant alliteration, distanced enough to have its effect without the loud –p becoming too loud, and the echo of desiccant in silica. Again, that precision with words.

What comes next is unexpected. At least it was for me.

Chekhov, dying, read the timetables of trains.
To what more earthly thing could he have been faithful? –
Scent of rocking distances,
smoke of blue trees out the window,
hampers of bread, pickled cabbage, boiled meat.

Scent of the knowable journey.

Nothing could be more dispassionate than a train timetable – those lists of numbers and place names, neatly tabulated, hardly stimulating material. And yet, Jane Hirshfield looks behind the surface of the sheets of paper, the tables and figures, and sees the “knowable journey” – its smells, movements, colours, tastes, images. The timetables become a map of memory and an image of faithfulness to the earth, even as death approaches.
More importantly it fixes the reader both on his/her journeys and also on his/her mortality, for we all know where our knowable journeys end. The coldness of the image is belied by its associations.

Then a further jump.

Neither a person entirely broken
nor one entirely whole can speak.

Now here, the poet tantalises the reader. How can she say this, on the basis of what’s come before? It’s a clever technique. The final line, which is still to come, holds the key to making sense of this, in the context of the rest of the poem. At the moment, Jane Hirshfield has succeeded in cranking up the tension to breaking-point. Then comes the final line, which is like a proverb, and proverbial endings are so unfashionable in contemporary poetry that she deserves bravery points for attempting it:

In sorrow, pretend to be fearless. In happiness, tremble.

So you’re not to let it all hang out. Just as Chekhov’s timetable was only the surface of a multi-scented, stimulating journey that he clung to in the face of death – his faithfulness to life was not broken by death’s approach, but he was unable to release himself wholly to the unknown journey either – so the reader is asked to live within a similar tension between life and death, holding on and non-attachment, emotion and tranquility; that preserving dispassion, which is vital to the painting or plant, but which is not it.

Jane Hirshfield asks for pretence, calls for lies even, so that the truth may be revealed. It’s the kind of poem that invites the reader to revisit it and to ask its questions again and again, as many of her poems do.

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