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Throughout The Beauty, her gracefully evocative eighth book of poems, Hirshfield is acutely observant and imaginative, archly witty and riddling. In “My Skeleton,” for example, she offers a fresh and startling look at our relationship with our bodies, a subject rooted in her fascination with perception, science, and underlying structures of all kinds. Her succinct and arresting observations—often framed within such everyday moments as waking in the morning, and inspired by the subtle wonders of honey, cellophane, church bells, even the journey of a common cold—swerve suddenly and exhilaratingly onto metaphysical terrain. Her pithy, disarming, and sage lyrics have a touch of Dickinson about them as she sets human dilemmas within nature’s perpetual surge: “Generation. / Strange word: both making and passing.”
Hirshfield’s previous prose collection, Nine Gates (1997), is treasured for its cogency. In Ten Windows, she celebrates poetry’s “breathing aliveness” and how it frees us from rigid, limited viewpoints and expands our capacity for “accurate knowing.” She identifies poetry’s “windows”—changes in direction, modulation, surprising twists, daring leaps—and explains how they “open” the reader to an “increase of meaning, feeling, and being.” Hirshfield elucidates poetry’s “musical shapeliness,” “creative intention,” embrace of uncertainty, and how poetry engenders a profound “unlatching.” She draws stirring examples from Hopkins, Whitman, Milosz, and Brooks, and illuminates the power of haiku in her affecting in-depth profile of the Japanese poet Bashō. Hirshfield writes brilliantly of paradox in poetry, of what poets and stand-up comics have in common, and how poetry “counters isolation and meaninglessness.” The profound pleasure Hirshfield takes in delineating poetry’s efficacy makes for a beautifully enlightening volume.
The short, punchy lyric is Simic’s forte, and The Lunatic, his newest volume of poetry, is driven by his signature melancholy and sardonic humor. Eerie city streets are this much-honored former poet laureate usual setting for unnervingly dissonant encounters and fraught juxtapositions, but in these stark and compressed poem-fables, he explores the dark side of the bucolic. Simic writes of crows, doomed chickens, “a small family graveyard,” a cat “slipping in and out / of the town jail,” and trees that provide both “ample shade” and “branches to hang yourself from, / Should you so desire.” One shabby little town looks “like / an abandoned movie set,” and Simic’s characters—a dog, an old woman—seem like forgotten extras. Spiked with clues to larger mysteries, Simic’s unnerving puzzle poems are works of insomniac witnessing and tempered love for our precious, haunted, rapturous, and dangerous world.
Sure-handed distillation is Simic’s style as an essayist as well as a poet, even as he unleashes his storyteller’s magic. The Life of Images: Selected Prose is a free-wheeling and stimulating volume reaching back to the 1980s and moving forward to reclaim pieces from six earlier books along with previously uncollected works. His wry and smart essays reveal the source of his abiding skepticism about humankind, namely his early, hungry, and precarious years in war-battered Belgrade. Wittily self-deprecating, he writes about his family, reading philosophy, food, and writing in bed. More scathingly, he describes the misery of watching the 1990s war in Yugoslavia on American television and decries the bane of nationalism. Simic anchors his deep trust in poetry to the fact that it always speaks for the individual, while a Buster Keaton film inspires him to declare, “That’s what great poetry is. A superb serenity in the face of chaos.” Simic is piquantly engaging, shrewdly hilarious, and superbly discerning and moving in his elucidation of poetry’s invaluable unexpectedness, subversiveness, and inexhaustibility.
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