Mourning Must Not Overwhelm Gratitude – The Hard-Won Wisdom of Jane Hirschfield – Two Poems from Her Latest Book: Ledger and a Poem She So Likes by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My Debt

Like all
who believe in the senses,
I was an accountant,

Not registrar,

Permitted to touch
the leaf of a thistle,
the trembling
work of a spider.

To ponder the Hubble’s recordings.

It did not matter
if I believed in
the party of particle or of wave,
as I carried no weapon.

It did not matter if I believed.
I weighed ashes,
cities that glittered like rubies,
on the scales I was given,
in units of fear and amazement.

I wrote the word it, the word is.

I entered the debt that is owed to the real.

spine-covered leaf, soft-bodied spider,
octopus lifting
one curious tentacle back toward the hand of the diver
that in such black ink
I set down your flammable colors.

Jane Hirschfield from Ledger, Alfred A. Knopf, 2020

What a voice Jane Hirschfield speaks. And so good to hear it speak again in her latest poetry collection Ledger which arrived this Spring. Hers, a voice born out of the silence she was steeped in in her twenties in a silent Buddhist monastery. A voice quiet yet with impact of thunder. Of lightning. Here in this poem, as she says in a quote below in a conversation with the American Iranian poet Kaveh Akbar, Hirschfield’s reminder to us, to herself, “that mourning must not overwhelm gratitude.”

And in these comments by Colleen Busch in a review of Ledger this past March she along with quotes by Jane, enlarges this idea of gratitude vs mourning:

There’s a story behind Hirshfield’s poem, “My Debt,” also featured here. She wrote another poem first, “Ghazal for the End of Time,” and sent it to a friend, after sharing that it was the darkest thing she had ever written and it frightened her. (The title says a lot, but the last line is “Death said, Now I too am orphan.”) That line shook Hirshfield to the core. It was a vision of complete failure, she tells me. Such a statement meant life itself no longer exists. In apology to her friend for conceiving and sharing such a dark vision, she wrote “My Debt.

A realization arose within writing that poem, “that it is simply rude not to be grateful for and praise all the beauty still now with us. Out my window this morning, I hear hawks’ mating cries, I see leaves, sun, dapple. I breathe the oxygen the plant world has given us….” Hirshfield wrote in an email exchange. “I am in every moment in debt to all existence, which gains nothing from my fears or my despair.”

Colleen Morton Busch from A Review of Jane Hirschfield’s New Book “Ledger” by in Orion Online, March 2020

Now, the penultimate poem in Hirschfield’s Ledger:


Break anything— a window, a piecrust, a glacier—it will break open.
A voice cannot speak, cannot sing without lips, teeth, lamina propia coming open.

Some breakage can barely be named, hardly be spoken.
Rains stopped, roof said. Fires, forests, cities, cellars peeled open.

Tears stopped, eyes said. An unbearable music fell instead from them.
A clarinet stripped of its breathing, the cello abandoned.

The violin grieving, a hand too long empty held open.
The imperial piano, its 89th, 90th, 91st strings unsummoned, unwoken.

Watching, listening, was like that: the low, wordless humming of being unwoven.
Fish vanished. Bees vanished. Bats whitened. Artcic ice opened.

Hands wanted more time, hand thoughts we had time. Spending time’s rivers,
its meadows, its mountains, its instruments tuning their silence, its deep mantle broken.

Earth stumbled within and outside us.
Orca, thistle, kestrel withheld their instruction.

Rock said, Burning Ones, pry your own blindness open.
Death said. Now I too am an orphan.

Jane Hirschfield, ibid

Let me say this: I am so relieved Hirschfield wrote Ghazal for the End of Time. So glad.  It voices my anger and despair. Not just outside of me but inside, too. What am I doing to make a difference? How am I repaying my debt to existence?

One of my favorite poetry publications is the American Poetry Review and here is Jane again, this time in conversation with the American Iranian poet Kaveh Akbar in the March/April issue!

Maybe what I want, what the poems want, is the reaching itself, the act of discovering, phrase by phrase, a thing worth trying to reach….The last poem in Ledger is an apology for the darkness of many before it. It’s a poem in whose writing I remembered that mourning must not overwhelm gratitude for what is being lost; that grief must not obscure praise; that it is, quite simply, rude not to love this moment’s very existence.

It may be that Ledger just reprises Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur.”….

And for all this, nature is never spent;
there lives the dearest freshness deep down things

And for all this.

Hopkin’s pivot-phrase may be what I myself now need most. It may be that I wrote this book, in the face of nature’s spending down and the fractured world all around us, to try and re-find, as we seem to need to do, a key already, perennially given… a way to witness this world with eyes fully open to error, cruelty and failure, and still for all this, to go on.

Jane Hirschfield in On Writing Poems Facuing into the Broken World, a conversation with  Jane Hirschfield and Kaveh Akbar from The American Poetry Review, March/April 2020

Oh, my god, how I want to beliweve, hold on to for dear life Hopkin’s declaration:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
there lives the dearest freshness deep down things

Here, now Hopkins’ full poem. One of the greats. So often I pass over truly great poems because I feel they are so well known! Need to find something fresher! Forget it! This, no matter one’s belief system, cries into the spiritual depth and angusih of what it is to be human!

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins from Poetry and Prose – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Everyman, 1998

And thank you Jane, again, for this reminder: Mourning must not overwhelm gratitude. Thank you.


  1. David Goldstein
    Posted August 4, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    The grief, though, is that, in our day, it feels that nature is in danger of being spent. How much longer the hawk’s cry outside the window? Yes, gratitude. Gratitude for what we have. But gratitude must not be used to deny grief.

    Gratitude to you, Richard, for drawing attention to a new collection by the wonderful Jane Hirschfield.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted January 10, 2021 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Thank you david. Just went back to some earluier of Jane’s poems. I have forgotten many of them as I keep up with the new ones. Crazy! Gratitude back to you.

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