We rarely review poetry anthologies, but this one is special
“The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems by Edward Hirsch,” is a vivid work. The images Hirsch conjures with memory, metaphor and stubborn truth are never opaque. He writes about things to which people can relate, even those people who never pick up a book of poems (they might want to make an exception for Hirsch).
Hirsch belongs to a generation of Jewish poets not much talked about in America — one far removed from the Yiddish poets of the early 20th century and the “Greatest Generation” poets who were shaped by the Depression, World War II and their desire to leave behind the European style Judaism they grew up with. Hirsch is firmly ensconced in America. His Judaism, whatever form it takes, is merely one part of his persona and certainly not an all-consuming part.
In fact, Hirsch is just as likely to write about Christian theologians as his own Jewish expression, as he does in “Away from Dogma,” which looks at the Catholic influences upon Simone Weil, a 20th century social activist who was born to agnostic Jewish parents, but gravitated to Christianity.
When Hirsch does weave Judaism into his work, it’s almost in passing, as if the subject merely permits him to segue into another expression not necessarily Jewish at all.
He creates odes to literary giants who happened to be Jews, such as Heinrich Heine and Pittsburgh-born Gertrude Stein.
In fact, Hirsch betrays his own struggle with faith in the poem “Yahrzeit Candle”
“we ushered her out of her suburban home
Like a pilgrim and handed her over to darkness,
released her spirit to the air, a wing,
and turning back to each other in light
of our fresh role as keepers of the dead,
initiates of sorrow, inheritor of prayers,
Lord, which we recite, but cannot
grown children swaying to archaic
and cupping the losses, our bowl of flame”
Hirsch doesn’t feel compelled to buy into his faith to make use of it. Its expressions affect him whether he believes or not.
Then there is this very personal stanza from his poem “My Grandfather’s Poems”:
“I remember that he wrote them
In Yiddish, in tiny slanty, bird-like lines
That seemed to rise and climb off the page
In a flurry of winged letters, mysterious signs.”
It’s Hirsch’s mastery of minute details such as “bird-like lines” that tells the reader more about the poet than his grandfather. One can picture a thoughtful, post-war young man growing up in Chicago, enthralled with what his grandfather was able to create.
Hirsch revisits family moments many times in his poems. He tackles deeply personal issues, such as a clandestine abortion, infertility and adoption. He doesn’t bother with politics and social justice; he can change enough of the world merely by telling the truth about himself.
One wonders if his constant dipping into the family well for inspiration doesn’t reflect Jewish values. Hirsch isn’t saying; at least, not overtly.
But every brushstroke of the poet’s life, and the lives of others who have touched him, shows up in his verses. Hirsch is a versatile poet whose eye for verse takes us many places. There’s a poem for everyone in this book. One need only turn the page.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)