Enough or Not – Part Two of Three – Autumn Quince by Jane Hirschfield

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield











Autumn Quince

How sad they are,
the promises we never return to.
They stay in our mouths,
roughen the tongue, lead lives of their own.
Houses built and unwittingly lived in;
a succession of milk bottles brought to the door
every morning and taken inside.

And which one is real?
The music in the composer’s ear
or the lapsed piece the orchestra plays?
The world is a blurred version of itself —
marred, lovely, and flawed.
It is enough.

Jane Hirschfield from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions, Bloodaxe Books, 2005

This is the second part of a three part series featuring poems by Charles Wright , Jane Hirschfield and Ellen Bass. The common theme in the poems is the idea: Is life enough? Wright in his poem writes himself to a yes , for me, so right, yet so unexpected. Hirschfield as you can see in her poem above, comes to a yes, but differently.

Hirschfield is a magician. In her poem every move  counts! And she makes me pay attention. Nothing is wasted. In this case, especially the title. There is a reason she chooses an Autumn quince, not an Autumn pears or apple. Here is the definition of Quince: Most varieties of quince are too hard, astringent and sour to eat raw unless “bletted” (softened by frost and subsequent decay).

What a great word: bletted. And, Autumn quince: what a large image. Sounds like life for most of us. Life needs to soften us up before we are fit to eat! How she weaves thoughts and images into a shape we can only recognize fully at the poem’s conclusion.

What a mysterious metaphor – Broken promises =  houses built and unwittingly lived in. What an image for the unconscious.  What an image for the unconscious.  Trademark Hirschfield. I feel sometimes, with her metaphors, that I am trying to harvest fog when I try to understand them with my left brain. With my right brain I get a sense of the inhabitant in such a house living a ghost-like existence. How the image makes me want to find a way to expunge regret from broken promises and live consciously! Be visible.

And what are the milk bottles?  This evidence that someone is living inside this house – unwittingly lived in? Can you guess. I am not sure. Unless in a strange way the what-if conversations I have with myself are the milk feeding my regret and disappointment.

What if I hadn’t broken my promise to go to Europe with Marcus instead of going back to university because of a girl, it turns out, who didn’t even like me very much! Who it turns out, was a lesbian. What if I hadn’t broken my promise to become a creative writer, a poet in my twenties; instead becoming a business journalist and a money manager. What if. What if. Do I hear the clink of milk bottles? I wonder.

And look at the double play she gets in the first line of the second stanza: And which one is real? Is she referring to the images of the house and mysterious milk bottles above as well as the image that follows?

But at the end it doesn’t matter. As she feels and thinks her way through the poem she takes herself and the reader to a place of profound acceptance. No matter the broken promises, the sadness, that rough taste in the mouth; no matter  the symphony is not as perfect as it is in the mind of the composer she is able to stay with this transformative thought – It is enough. That beauty is enough. The world is enough And we, as her audience can go there with her, if we are convinced as she is convinced. That is the risk she takes. I, for one, am convinced. Are you?

And here is the other surprising richness I taste in this poem. In a way the journey through the poem, has done to Hirschfield what late Autumn does to a quince – she has been bletted , softened and sweetened. She has been changed. Just as Wright has been changed in his poem but, it is so different, how they got there. And how, too, I have been changed. How I get to her destination: profound acceptance. Broken promises or not; in spite of the difference between my ideal poem in my head and the one on the page.

The world is a blurred version of itself —
marred, lovely, and flawed.

It is enough.


  1. Posted September 13, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I like your associations with milk bottles! The little click of each verge of awareness that doesn’t quite make it into full consciousness, yet makes up the composition of a life. Stunning. As is Jane Hirschfield, always. She’s been a favorite since I heard her read the first time at the Writers’ Conference in Port Townsend, WA, sometime in the mid-1990s.

  2. Richard
    Posted November 5, 2015 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks Christin. Something about Hirschfield. One of the contemporary poets I cherish. I was sorry she didn’t make this year’s National Book Awards short list.

  3. Liz
    Posted September 13, 2015 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Ah Richard
    Bitter regrets in the autumn of life, the milk bottles perhaps how we feed them .. Something to ponder from you as always.

  4. Richard
    Posted November 5, 2015 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks Liz. Regrets, how they can call to us in the most unexpected times and places.

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