Review: Ledger by Jane Hirshfield


To My Fifties

You opened me
as a burglar opens a house with a silent alarm.
I opened you
as a burglar opens a house with a silent alarm.

We knew we had to work quickly,
bears ecstatic, not minding the stinging.

Or say it was this:

We were the wax paper bag
in which something was wrapped.
What was inside us
neither opaque not entirely transparent.
Afterward, we were folded into neat creases.

Or this:

Say we were paired
cupping two dates, a hyphen,
and much that continues unspoken.


We were our own future,
a furnace invented to burn itself up.




Little soul,
you and I will become

the memory
of a memory of a memory.

A horse
released of the traces
forgets the weight of the wagon.



My Debt

Like all
who believe in the senses,
I was an accountant,

Not registrar,

Permitted to touch
the leaf of a thistle,
the trembling
work of a spider.

To ponder the Hubble’s recordings.

It did not matter
if I believed in
the party of particle or of wave,
as I carried no weapon.

It did not matter if I believed.

I weighed ashes,
cities that glittered like rubies,
on the scales I was given,
in units of fear and amazement.

I wrote the word it, the word is.

I entered the debt that is owed to the real.

spine-covered leaf, soft-bodied spider,
octopus lifting
one curious tentacle back toward the hand of the diver
that in such black ink
I set down your flammable colors.



These poems are excerpted from Ledger by Jane Hirshfield. Copyright © 2020 by Jane Hirshfield. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. “To My Fifties” and “My Debt” first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, and “Harness” first appeared in Poetry. Ledger is available for order here.

See previous Poetry Sunday features of Jane Hirshfield’s poems “Today, When I Could Do Nothing,” “Let Them Not Say,” and “My Life Was the Size of my Life” here, here, and here.

Several reviews of Ledger are collected on Literary Hub, here. To that list, add Meryl Natchez’s new review in Zyzzyvaand these recent interviews with the poet:


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. In Hirshfield’s work, science collaborates with art to explore the deepest matters of humanity and nature—a partnership that achieves transcendence in her ninth book of poetry, Ledger (Knopf 2020). 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), great reading for these long shut-in days, 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 as well as the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize, and ten appearances in The Best American Poetry. Hirshfield’s poems appear in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Poetry, and widely elsewhere. She was the 2016 Mohr Visiting Poet at Stanford University and is chancellor emerita of the Academy of American Poets, and she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. [Sources here and here] You can order Ledger here and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World here.


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  • Diane McKinzie May 4, 2020 at 7:23 am

    So glad I found you. can’t wait to begin receiving the newsletter. Thank you.