SIng Going Down

Jack Gilbert (1925 -2012)

Jack Gilbert (1925 -2012)

What a journey I had this morning! It started with finding a Hirschfield quote in the 2012 book A God in the House:

…poetry exists in part to enlarge us, to deliver us into the not yet known. Writing is an act that generates and expands attention. And if I’m lucky, I may write something that helps expand the life and attention of others as well.

Jane Hirschfield from A God in the House, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, Tupelo Press, 2012

And yes, Jane, you have expanded the life and attention of others as well: I have been thinking lately of your poem On the Beach, how I carry that little girl from the poem, the beauty of that little soul standing in the beauty of the sea-wrack around her, the broken-beautiful at her feet, and her own losses, their terrible beauty, waiting for her:

On the Beach

Uncountable tiny pebbles
of many colours.

Broken seashells mixed in with whole ones,

Sand dollars, shattered and whole,
the half-gone wing of a gull.

Changed glass
that is like the heart after much pain.
The empty shell of a crab.

A child moves alone in the grey
that is half fog, half wind-blown ocean.

She lifts one pebble, another,
into her pocket.
From time to time takes them out again and looks.

These few and only these. How many? Why?

The waves continue their work of breaking
then rounding the edges.

I would speak to her if I could,
but across the distance, what would she hear?
Ocean and ocean. Cry of a fish.

Walk slowly now, small soul by the edge
of the water. Choose carefully
all you are going to lose, though any of it would do.

Jane Hirschield from the Lives of the Heart, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc, 1997
Perhaps it is that image of innocence standing up against life’s immensities at the edge of an ocean, such beautiful brokenness at her feet, but I identify with her. Even with the losses that I have chosen and the ones that have chosen me I want to remember how to stand like her and pick beautiful things and put them in a pocket.

I wasn’t finished with Hirschfield as it turns out this morning! I searched through an interview with her from Rattle Magazine in 2006 and found this:

This is also, of course, one of the central teachings of certain schools of Buddhism: You’re already a Buddha, so you might as well act like one. And everything that happens is the perfection of what happens, including the losses, the pain and suffering, the death, and also the joy. It’s never too late to awaken—you can recognize the perfection of things even at the moment of death. There’s a remarkable haiku by Issa—

On a branch
floating downriver,
a cricket singing.

I think that this is a perfect portrait of life in seventeen syllables [in the Japanese]. You’re going to go over the waterfall, but you are here, now, a cricket, and so what do you do? You sing.

You sing! Yes.The image of singing is so prevalent in poetry: poetry as its own irrepressible song! The haiku by Issa makes me think of Greg Orr’s wonderful declaration: Turn me into Song. Sing me awake. And then it makes me remember a haiku of Basho quoted by Jack Gilbert in an essay called The Craft of the Invisible:

Tired of cherry,
tired of this whole world,
I sit facing muddy sake
and black rice

No cheery early morning offering! And then in the process of finding this essay of Gilbert’s I found another one that also included a number of his early poems and was startled to find a favorite one that ties back to where I started with Hirschfield and Issa’s brave cricket! This wonderful fragment: sing going down.

Here are some excerpts from that poem: Don Giovanni on his Way to Hell:

The oxen have voices
the flowers are wounds
You never recover from Tuscany noons

They cripple with beauty
and butcher with love
sing folly, sing flee, sing going down.

And the final stanzas:

you never recover
you never escape
and you musn’t endevour to find the mistake

that cripples with beauty
that butchers as love
sing folly, sing flee, sing going down

sing maidens and towns, Oh maidens and towns
folly, flee, sing going down

Oh yes! What a great reminder: sing going down. And how unexpected on a morning when I was surprised by a quote on how poetry expands attention! And then how my attention expanded! And then, how I remember to sing!