Reading Poetry Through the War
War, early mornings, and the poetry of Jane Hirshfield.
I blame my mother for it, the morning-routine thing. When I was young, she got up every day before dawn to pray. I was never quite clear on everything she did, but it was elaborate; she said her prayers, she did some devotional reading, she lit candles, one for each person she cared about and “one for my enemies,” she told me. I have no idea what enemies my mother made over the course of my childhood. She seemed to me like a very nice lady. She had to devote a whole sector of the morning to praying for them, though, so they must exist.
It always seemed to me like the mark of adulthood, spending several hours on your soul each morning, but I’m not a Christian, so I’ve had to do it by other means. I meditate. I stretch. I pull a few Tarot cards and prop them up on my desk so that I can glance at them throughout the day. If I don’t do these things every morning — and I mean do them first thing, before having any conversations or accomplishing any tasks at all — I am vaguely resentful and unpleasant for the rest of the day. The morning routine seems to be making me a worse person, if anything, but I stick to it. First you alienate your entire family with bizarre and incomprehensible rituals. Then you achieve enlightenment. That’s how I’ve been led to believe this works.
Lately, I’ve been reading poetry in the mornings. The poet I am reading, Jane Hirshfield, is also someone I can blame on my mother; she took me to see Hirshfield read back in the ’90s. After the reading, she asked Hirshfield how her teenager, who was very talented, could make a living as a professional writer. I, the teenager, hunched down into my seat and longed for death. Jane Hirshfield told me to consider a career in food service.
I mean, she phrased it very nicely — writing is not really something you do for a living, I can sort of recall her saying; most poets wind up doing a lot of food service — but the point stands that when I was fifteen, the acclaimed poet Jane Hirshfield told me to give up my dreams because I would never make any money as a writer. It remains one of the more useful pieces of advice anyone has ever given me.
Hirshfield is now one of my favorite contemporary poets. I still read her. I wrote…