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Poetry Sunday: 'My Life Was the Size of My Life,' by Jane Hirshfield

Distance from the “I”
From the start, the speaker refers to her life in the third person, calling it “my life” and “it” throughout the poem, an entity separate from the speaker and a character with whom she is in relationship. My first thought, when I realized what the poem was up to, was about Rimbaud’s famous formulation: Je est un autre, often translated as “I is an other.” The first line states an apparent tautology, almost a riddle or koan: “My life was the size of my life.” Through it we are invited to examine the speaker’s life not just as an entity separate from her, but also one with measurable dimension (size). At the same time, we are told that measurement means nothing: it is the size that it is. Line 2 reveals that the speaker’s life has “rooms” and, in another apparent tautology, they are “room-sized.” This invites us to think of the speaker’s life as a house or dwelling, reinforced by a later reference to its having windows (10-11). The conception of a life as a house made me think of the biblical reference from John 14:2, “In my father’s house are many mansions” and also of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. One of the many lines I copied from Hirshfied’s book of essays into my journal has to do with rooms:

“Art’s limitlessness awakens in us the sense of the psyche’s own limitless rooms. It is how the inner world grows continually new.” Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Knopf 2015).

We see the speaker within in the house of her life, and, in a sort of Russian Doll effect, the house in the larger universe of weather (“sun, clouds, snow”) and the physical universe (“stars and planets”).
The idea of quantification of a life returns in lines 12-14, when the speaker acknowledges that other lives are “larger,” “shorter,” and of different “depth” than her own. On one level, this is a poem of appraisal, of self-examination, of a speaker taking stock of her own life. But it is much more, just as this “life” in the poem is much more than a metaphorical house holding the speaker. No sooner have we become comfortable with the notion of one’s life as a house, then that house grows legs and takes off to travel by way of elevators, bullet trains, airplanes and, in a humorous deflation, by way of a donkey. From this point onward the speaker’s life is personified, given human characteristics, even wearing “socks, its own ears and nose.”
The personification intensifies as the poem progresses, and the character of “my life” becomes more and more human and corporeal. It takes sustenance, sleeps, opens and closes its hands. Each of these actions can, of course, be given metaphorical significance; we imagine spiritual openings as windows, for example, or eating and sleeping on more than the level of feeding the physical body.
From the start of the poem and until the last line, the speaker sets her “life” up as something apart, and at the turn in line 17, she, in lines 17-19, outright rejects and abandons it: “Once, I grew moody and distant. / I told my life I would like some time.” This deliberately-used cliché is marriage-in-trouble lingo, and the idea of saying it to one’s “life” is witty and evocative. Who hasn’t wanted take a break from her own life? Some, like Che Guevara when he left a life of affluence to embrace radical activism, make a permanent and profound break. Others travel or move to a new place or try on a different lifestyle: hedonists go on monastic retreats, couch potatoes become tri-athletes, and so on.
After spending a very short time (“a week”) away, the speaker returns with her “empty suitcase.” If you listen to Hirshfield reading the poem, you’ll generally hear a laugh at that line, the audience connecting the suitcase with the idea of an empty show of defiance. In the last four lines, the speaker returns to her life with all the spiritual ardor you might find in a poem by George Herbert (“Love III”) or John Donne (“Batter my Heart Three-Personed God”). At the literal level, they reunite in an embrace so powerful that it has no end; the last sentence is the only one in the poem to lack a period and in fact lacks punctuation of any kind. The reunion is joyous, complete, and passionate with the speaker’s life incarnated in line 22 as a lover as “hungry” as the speaker is. What follows is a remarkable paratactic rush of erotic action unimpeded by punctuation that both concludes and does not conclude this poem: “we could not keep / our hands off our clothes on our tongues from”
I say concludes, because there are no lines after this one, and I also say does not conclude because the line lacks a period and so goes on to infinity. In the words of one of my teachers, Heather McHugh, this poem enacts the perfect ending: one that feels inevitable at the same time that it opens up into a universe of potential. It wraps up its surface narratives: a spouse becomes discontent in a marriage, leaves, then comes back; a speaker becomes alienated from her life then returns to herself. Going more deeply, though, we are left to ponder narratives that by their nature can never be complete, unanswerable questions about the separation between ourselves and our physical bodies, between our body and other bodies, between our individual lives and the totality of existence on this planet and of this planet in the greater cosmos.
Some say the mark of a great poem is its ability to convince each reader it was written for him or her, and so it was with me and “My Life Was the Size of My Life.” When I first read it, I was in a checkout line in some other state I’d gone to for a reading. I’d been traveling a lot—too much, it was beginning to feel like—and I took it as a sort of parable about embracing a quieter life at home. The poem is much broader and deeper than my narrow, selfish reading, of course, and that’s my point. A great poem is said to be universal, but what is universality but a vast collection of particulars? It seems to me that a poem’s universality is precisely this ability to speak individually and uniquely to many readers, each one thinking it was written for and about her and exactly what she needs to hear in that moment—just like wisdom, magic, or medicine.
 
 

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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.
 

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  • Nkechi April 4, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    I am so glad you open it up with one of my favorite people too. Jane is a beauty to behold especially how she sees poetry. Secondly, I love the comfort that this blog brings. Often good blog is good for change and poetry. I have to ask, Can you make a space where I can share my poetry and get it up to where everyone will be inclusive. I will love to hear from you. Or how can I contribute if it is possible. Thanks

    Reply
  • Nkechi April 4, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    I am so glad you open it up with one of my favorite people too. Jane is a beauty to behold especially how she sees poetry. Secondly, I love the comfort that this blog brings. Often good blog is good for change and poetry. I have to ask, Can you make a space where I can share my poetry and get it up to where everyone will be inclusive. I will love to hear from you. Or how can I contribute if it is possible. Thanks

    Reply
  • Susan Aizenberg April 4, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Hi, Rebecca Foust — I enjoy your weekly poetry posts very much — in fact, they’re the primary reason I subscribe to this newsletter. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Susan Aizenberg April 4, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Hi, Rebecca Foust — I enjoy your weekly poetry posts very much — in fact, they’re the primary reason I subscribe to this newsletter. Thanks!

    Reply