cover image The Asking: New and Selected Poems

The Asking: New and Selected Poems

Jane Hirshfield. Knopf, $35 (368p) ISBN 978-0-59353595-0

Spanning from 1971 to 2023, this outstanding chronological selection begins with new, uncollected work and ends with a portion from “Ledger,” published in 2020. A longtime practitioner of California Zen Buddhism who approaches poetry with the discipline of daily prayer, Hirshfield directs her poems at the natural world while examining problems of the self: “To be personal is easy:.../ I wanted to be mountainal, wateral, wrenal.” Poems about love are present throughout the author’s oeuvre. Still, Hirshfield wrestles with contradiction and despair; the lines “everything is still possible” and “everything now is finished” appear in the same poem. She is particularly skilled at writing short verses hinged on surprise; “Two Kerosene Lanterns,” for instance, wittily casts a mishap from a cat’s point of view. Doors and windows are frequent metaphors, as in “Three Times My Life Has Opened”: “There is a door. It opens. Then it is closed. But a slip of light/ stays, like a scrap of unreadable paper left on the floor,/ or the one red leaf the snow releases in March.” Longer poems take on difficult topics, including today’s political and environmental crises. These muscular yet lyrical poems offer necessary reminders of joy in a world marked by suffering. (Sept.)