Monday, February 8, 2010

Jane Hirshfield

I don’t tend to follow contemporary poetry all that much. I made a show of so doing when I was in grad school, and keeping up with writers was part of the job description, so to speak – but one of the reliefs of finally earning my MFA was the feeling that I could safely return to my determinedly anachronistic reading habits.

This is by way of concession that I would probably know more about Jane Hirshfield if I were an avid reader of living writers. I’ve heard of her and have read a handful of her other poems, and that’s as far as my acquaintance extends. This poem was in last week’s New Yorker.

Part of me wonders if it isn’t a touch too earnest, but the pun of the title prevents me from reading it as only earnest. I have pretty deep-seated suspicions about the capacity of humans to anchor any fixed definitions around the word “truth,” so I suppose I like this poem’s rather flip evasion of the concept. That said, I don’t think it’s smirking or dismissive of the idea of a quest for truth, which would render it juvenile.

I might be wrong; I’m still thinking about it. At the very least, I appreciate poetry that gives me something to think about.

What I am mildly suspicious of is the reference to Eastern Europe, which can be a Western writer’s way of introducing history, and with it seriousness, into works that would otherwise be evidently slight. Perhaps someone can persuade me that there’s a particular reason for Kraków and a particular logic to salt mines thereabouts, as I myself can’t lay claim to any knowledge of Polish topography.

If Truth is the Lure, Humans are Fishes

Under each station of the real,
another glimmers.
And so the love of false-bottomed drawers
and the salt mines outside Kraków,
going down and down without drowning.
A man harms his wife, his child.
He says, “Here is the reason.”
She says, “Here is the reason.”
The child says nothing,
watching him led away.
If truth is the lure, humans are fishes.
All the fine bones of that eaten-up story,
think about them.
Their salt-cod whiteness on whiteness.

Jane Hirshfield on Wikipedia

Jane Hirshfield on


  1. Have you ever seen photos of the Wieliczka Salt Mine and the underground chapels and palaces made of salt?? It reminded me
    of what lies beneath... stirring poem. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Not until I googled it just now. :) Gorgeous, and that does illuminate the poem a bit. Thanks!