Jane Hirshfield: “Today, When I Could Do Nothing”


Today, When I Could Do Nothing

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer—warm—
then onto the back of a cushion.

Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.


First published in the San Francisco Chronicle and reprinted here with permission of the author.


Jane Hirshfield’s poems have been described as “radiant and passionate” by The New York Times Book Review, “magnificent and distinctive” by The Irish Times, and “among the pantheon of the modern masters of simplicity” by The Washington Post. Critics and commentators have long noticed the link between science and Hirshfield’s work, a collaboration that reaches its full flowering in Hirshfield’s ninth book of poetry, Ledger (Knopf 2020), just released and available for order here. Hirshfield’s last book, The Beauty (Knopf 2015), was longlisted for the National Book Award and named a best book of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Hirshfield is also a prolific translator and essayist; her most recent book of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Knopf 2015), is great reading for these long shut-in days and is available here. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the Academy of American Poets, and the National Endowment for the Arts; the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry; and ten appearances in The Best American Poetry. Hirshfield’s work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Poetry, and elsewhere. The 2016 Mohr Visiting Poet at Stanford University and is a chancellor emerita of the Academy of American Poets, Hirshfield lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.  [Sources here and here]

Read Ilya Kaminsky’s interview for the Paris Review, “A Poem Is Not a Frontal Assault: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield,” here. Hirshfield reads seven poems here.


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Readers, I had dedicated this slot to a review of Jane Hirshfield’s luminous new book of poetry, Ledger, but my concentration has been too fragmented for that, and I am hoping to bring the review to you next month instead. In the meantime, here is something wonderful: a new poem Hirshfield wrote just a few days ago, one that speaks directly to—and from within—the great, echoing dilemma we now inhabit.

I learned about the new poem while emailing with Hirshfield about postponing a reading planned for Grace Cathedral on April 17. The reading took place online last week as part of Litquake’s new “Litquake on Lockdown” series and featured Kazim Ali, Natalie Diaz, and Tongo Eisen-Martin along with Hirshfield. It was one of the first public poetry readings on Zoom in this country, and we had to work our way through some technical issues, including getting zoom-bombed. The troll bot got bounced, but not before, in a few seconds, generating 563 comments rife with all the predictable slurs—racist, xenophobic, and homophobic. The day after the reading, Zoom announced better security controls, so let’s hope those work.

In any event, the poems were luminous and wonderful, briefly creating a safe bubble of light and sound, and you can view them here. Like that glitchy John Oliver show recorded the first day he filmed in his home instead of his studio, maybe this reading will stand as an interesting, authentic, and early artifact of this crazy time.

Poetry has helped me get through this difficult time, and I hope to share that consolation in the coming months by presenting poems that feel authentic and relevant to our changed circumstances and, maybe, offer some hope as well. Hirshfield has long been a favorite poet and radical source of hope for me, and this column has featured her previously, here and here. I’ve always loved the consciousness inhabiting her poems—calm, radiant, universal, and spiritual at the same time it is acutely attentive to earthly beauty—and now it’s a mainstay. Written from the first-person point of view, “Today, When I Could Do Nothing” transcends its “I” and speaks for us all.

In the poem, the speaker finds the confines of her small shelter-in-place space invaded by a visitor in the form of—an ant. I’ve been noticing those same ants, nervously wondering if they could be vectors of infection, but Hirshfield takes the opposite view, welcoming the tiny creature into her home and then rescuing it to release it again outside. Hirshfield is private about her personal life but is clearly influenced by Buddhism, which forbids the killing of any creature, including insects. In any event, we sense in these lines great appreciation and respect for all forms of life. Also for nature, represented here wholly—except for passing references to a “garden” and ‘sun”—in the form of that ant. Seeing it reminds the speaker of the sanctity of all life even as she finds herself sequestered, apart, and socially distanced from her “own kind.” Getting to know and then rescuing the ant bestows something essential: something to do that matters, personal agency in the face of overwhelming feelings of helplessness and lack of control.

We can still do things, important things, the poem reminds us; we just need to change our frames of reference and, maybe, look around us with a little more devotion. Even in a tiny interior space, the world is still open to us through our windows. Literal windows and, of course, metaphorical ones opened by literature, music and, the internet. I’m grateful for those things, but as “Today, When I Could Do Nothing” reminds us, we can and should still continue to connect directly with nature and with other living beings any way we can.

The poem expresses gratitude without sounding sanctimonious, the speaker giving simple thanks for things like “coffee and books, / time, / a garden, / [and] silence enough to fill cisterns.” What an astonishing paradox that last image presents—something we think of as empty (silence) pouring itself into and filling another symbol of emptiness (cisterns). It also expresses Hirshfield’s characteristically understated and powerful sense of personal humility: “I am not an essential service,” the speaker acknowledges. And yet, she has a role to play and a crucial, life-giving service to perform.

The poem is free verse organized into 12 irregular stanzas for a total of 33 lines, and like most of Hirshfield’s work, is unmetered and unrhymed. Its beauty and music come from its precision—absolute aptness—of diction and from the way these lines, infinitely spare and well-chosen, are arranged. The poem has so much space. Note, for example, the way “time” occupies its own line in the fifth stanza.

This is one of this poem’s many gifts: the reminder that in the tiniest spaces, such as between the particles in an atom, infinite space resides. For those of us getting cabin fever, that idea alone offers comfort. I was also comforted by that ant’s apparent lack of fear even as the very ground beneath it morphs into the living hand of a much larger creature that swoops it “through swiftness and air.” There have been times this past week when I felt like that, taken up and whirled through a vastness seemingly designed to remind me of my own diminutive importance and stature. How smart that is, to put the ant in a situation that reminds us of the one we ourselves are in—a way to cultivate empathy and another reminder that every living creature is precious.

No life is too small to save, the poem tells us. And, no life is incapable of rendering some service, however modest. These are words, readers, that can sustain us—maybe even save us—in the difficult times to come.



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