by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
I wrote this poem after opening my copy of For the Sleepwalkers to begin work on an earlier, shorter version of this profile, which I originally published at another website. There was still a faint smokiness in the pages of the book from the long-ago fire which burned our former home, carrying with it so many memories – we were able to save almost all of our books, and no one was seriously injured, but it was our first home together.
A Penny Patron of The Arts
– for Edward Hirsch
by Nona Blyth-Cloud
A first edition book of poems newly printed in 1981
its back-cover worth: $5.95
By the time my hand brushed over it on the bookstore
bargain table, stickers had drifted down
past $1.99 and settled at 99¢
I thumbed through your pages looking
for 4 poems I liked enough
to pay 25¢ apiece
Please don’t be insulted – 99¢ was a much bigger slice
of my paycheck then for a lean-thewed paperback
of higher than four-poem value
I still have your book
splintering glue cracked its spine,
but the dense pages are only a little yellowed
We’ve traveled long together, these poems and I,
survivors through fire and earthquake,
that ever-sameness of eternal change
A thing of tape and patches
but still your “thumbprint of another life”
Edward Hirsch (1950 – ) poet, critic, and “Poet’s Choice” columnist for the Washington Post, said in an interview for Contemporary Authors: “I would like to speak in my poems with what the Romantic poets called ‘the true voice of feeling.’ I believe, as Ezra Pound once said, that when it comes to poetry, ‘only emotion endures.’”
The word “quotidian” comes up a lot in discussions of Hirsch’s poetry – a scholarly word for everyday or mundane. While that might describe the subjects in many of his poems, it is not a word that suits the poems.
A Partial History Of My Stupidity
Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge,
and I took the road to the right, the wrong one,
and got stuck in the car for hours.
Most nights I rushed out into the evening
without paying attention to the trees,
whose names I didn’t know,
or the birds, which flew heedlessly on.
I couldn’t relinquish my desires
or accept them, and so I strolled along
like a tiger that wanted to spring
but was still afraid of the wildness within.
The iron bars seemed invisible to others,
but I carried a cage around inside me.
I cared too much what other people thought
and made remarks I shouldn’t have made.
I was silent when I should have spoken.
Forgive me, philosophers,
I read the Stoics but never understood them.
I felt that I was living the wrong life,
while halfway around the world
thousands of people were being slaughtered,
some of them by my countrymen.
So I walked on — distracted, lost in thought —
and forgot to attend to those who suffered
far away, nearby.
Forgive me, faith, for never having any.
I did not believe in God,
who eluded me.
The subject of this poem, Simone Weil (1909-1943), was a French philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist. Disregarding her frail health, Weil worked for a year in factories to better understand the working people she was trying to help as a trade unionist. She was described by Albert Camus as “the only great spirit of our times.”
Simone Weil: The Year of Factory Work
A glass of red wine trembles on the table,
Untouched, and lamplight falls across her shoulders.
She looks down at the cabbage on her plate,
She stares at the broken bread. Proposition:
The irreducible slavery of workers. “To work
In order to eat, to eat in order to work.”
She thinks of the punchclock in her chest,
Of night deepening in the bindweed and crabgrass,
In the vapors and atoms, in the factory
Where a steel vise presses against her temples
Ten hours per day. She doesn’t eat.
She doesn’t sleep. She almost doesn’t think
Now that she has brushed against the bruised
Arm of oblivion and tasted the blood, now
That the furnace has labeled her skin
And branded her forehead like a Roman slave’s.
Surely God comes to the clumsy and inefficient,
To welders in dark spectacles, and unskilled
Workers who spend their allotment of days
Pulling red-hot metal bobbins from the flames.
Surely God appears to the shattered and anonymous,
To the humiliated and afflicted
Whose legs are married to perpetual motion
And whose hands are too small for their bodies.
Proposition: “Through work man turns himself
Into matter, as Christ does through the Eucharist.
Work is like a death. We have to pass
Through death. We have to be killed.”
We have to wake in order to work, to labor
And count, to fail repeatedly, to submit
To the furious rhythm of machines, to suffer
The pandemonium and inhabit the repetitions,
To become the sacrificial beast: time entering
Into the body, the body entering into time.
She presses her forehead against the table:
To work in order to eat, to eat . . .
Outside, the moths are flaring into stars
And stars are strung like beads across the heavens.
Inside, a glass of red wine trembles
Next to the cold cabbage and broken bread.
Exhausted night, she is the brimming liquid
And untouched food. Come down to her.
For the Sleepwalkers
Tonight I want to say something wonderful
for the sleepwalkers who have so much faith
in their legs, so much faith in the invisible
arrow carved into the carpet, the worn path
that leads to the stairs instead of the window,
the gaping doorway instead of the seamless mirror.
I love the way that sleepwalkers are willing
to step out of their bodies into the night,
to raise their arms and welcome the darkness,
palming the blank spaces, touching everything.
Always they return home safely, like blind men
who know it is morning by feeling shadows.
And always they wake up as themselves again.
That’s why I want to say something astonishing
like: Our hearts are leaving our bodies.
Our hearts are thirsty black handkerchiefs
flying through the trees at night, soaking up
the darkest beams of moonlight, the music
of owls, the motion of wind-torn branches.
And now our hearts are thick black fists
flying back to the glove of our chests.
We have to learn to trust our hearts like that.
We have to learn the desperate faith of sleep —
walkers who rise out of their calm beds
and walk through the skin of another life.
We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness
and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised.
Hirsch has written many poems and commentaries about other writers, some of his poems as if the poet were speaking the words to us:
…..Because I believe now that the heart
Is a pomegranate consuming itself
And that even the secrets we disclose
Remain secrets, we deserve a great kindness.
We have wasted nothing, traveling through
Open spaces into ourselves.
– from The Enigma: Rilke
Edward Hirsch writes poems that you find yourself returning to, as if to a friend you can talk with about everything, from a bad day at work, to how to fix the world, to what comes after death. That friend who makes you mull things over, and question your assumptions.
The best kind of “everyday” poet.
- For the Sleepwalkers (1981) – Alfred A. Knopf
- Wild Gratitude (1986) – Alfred A. Knopf
- The Night Parade (1989) – Alfred A. Knopf
- Earthly Measures (1994) – Alfred A. Knopf
- On Love (1998) – Alfred A. Knopf
- Lay Back the Darkness(2003) – Alfred A. Knopf
- Special Orders (2008) – Alfred A. Knopf
- The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (2010) – Alfred A. Knopf
- Gabriel A Poem (2014) – Alfred A. Knopf
- How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999) –
- A Poet’s Glossary (2014) – Harcourt Mifflin Brace
- For the Sleepwalkers book cover
- Edward Hirsch
- Homeless man with ‘Help’ sign
- Simone Weil
- A dark steaming cup
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud