Review: Ledger by Jane Hirshfield

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s offerings are from Ledger, Jane Hirshfield’s new book that released on March 10, 2020, during COVID-19 confinement, and they were chosen to offer a view on poems not already featured in other reviews. What I’d like to do here is give an overview of the book and, frankly, convince you to read it because we all need to read this book, especially now.

Ledger collects 80 short poems (most a page or less) in six sections plus a frontispiece poem, “Let Them Not Say,” widely read and called an anthem for the social justice movement. Like its sister poem (“On the Fifth Day”) in the book’s last section, it’s a poem for the ages. Both went viral and became memes following the 2016 election, and you can find them online. These poems are magnificent, but Ledger is full of equally powerful if quieter poems that richly reward first, second, and subsequent readings.

The book’s title, like the powerful poem bearing its name that opens the last section, is a treasure box waiting to be unpacked. We are all familiar with the primary meaning of the word “ledger,” a notebook or register used in bookkeeping to keep accounts, and that is, in fact, what the titular poem (“Ledger”), gathered into regular quatrains, looks like on the page. On a deeper level, Publisher’s Weekly calls Hirshfield’s book “an account of how [w]e did not-enough” to save the world, and Hirshfield describes it as a “reckoning—emotional, conceptual, and ethical” [Source: Trommer interview, linked above].

Ledger’s poems take stock of the losses—both personal to this speaker and in the larger sense of our world’s ever-diminishing resources and species—and do so with a mounting sense of crisis. Hirshfield has long addressed environmental and social justice issues in her poems, but “what’s changed in this book,” she says, “is the urgency and centrality of these subjects. The time line for swerve feels shorter, the precipice raised to heights fatal not only for individuals, but for the planet.” [Source: Kaminsky interview, linked above]

The exigency of that “precipice” is captured in another remarkable image teased from the title by reviewer Elizabeth Crane: A person can be a “ledger” in the same way someone who explores caves is a “caver.” [Source here] Read this way, the title imagines the speaker standing on a ledge and, in a remarkable doubling-back, the world itself—the source and origin of all ledges—teeters there as well. It’s a kind of Indian Rope Trick, similar to moves Hirshfield makes in other poems. For example, consider the careful construction of a metaphorical window the speaker literally climbs out of in “Husband” or the mis en abyme “memory / of a memory of a memory” in “Harness,” above. In an older poem, “The Supple Deer,” the speaker longs to be—not the deer “pouring” through a gap in a fence—but the fence itself, “porous” enough to be passed through. These images make me think of legerdemain, another word maybe related to “ledger” and an apt description for Hirshfield’s almost magical sleight-of-hand uses of language in these poems.

“Ledger” carries other secondary meanings. For example, it’s the name of a key architectural support used in building construction and also a “flat slab of stone laid over a tomb,” a chilling visual gloss to poems like “Now A Dark Time is Coming” that explore the poet’s own mortality, along with the world’s. A related angling term (leger) names a lead sinker that weights a line, recalling not just the fishes swimming so poignantly through Hirshfield’s poems (“Bluefish”) but also recurrent images of the lead weights used for leverage in double-hung windows. The word derives from the Middle English legger, “denoting a large bible or breviary.” A breviary is a book of daily prayers and devotions sometimes called a “Book of Hours”—a term that could describe Ledger as a whole and which, if I am not mistaken, explicitly comes up in a line. Finally, the old root also means “to lie down; to bow, kneel, prostrate; to die; to be located (somewhere); to remain in place.” There is a lot of bowing in these Zen Buddhist-inspired poems, figuratively and literally, and they strive always to situate the speaker, and us, squarely “in place” in this world. [Sources: here and here]

Ledger’s six untitled sections are separated by that symbol ubiquitous in our Twitter age—a hashtag, or #. Like every other detail in this lovingly-crafted book, this one matters. Hashtags originated as pound symbols in ancient Rome and have long been used as a symbol for numbers, with obvious relevance to a book whose central concern is, as Hirshfield says, “to reckon the sums.” [Source: Trommer interview, linked above] Some trace its origins to a pictograph marking out eight farm plots—embodying the ideas of growth, good stewardship, and community, also central to the book. Finally, think about what the hashtag did for Twitter after it was introduced there by Chris Messina: created community by giving people something, an idea or topic, to rally around.

Ledger gives us many poems to rally around, and in it, no detail is too small to be overlooked by the poet. I could write an essay just on the book’s masterful line breaks or its sequencing. As in the best writing of any genre, the poet’s hand is invisible throughout; her touch on the reins light, but always there to guide the direction, development, and pacing of the unfolding narrative. Every comma, period, and em dash is placed with acute precision, so artfully that some readers may not even notice the punctuation (or in some cases its absence), or the way poems follow one another like an ocean current ebbing and flowing and gathering strength to crest in the last section. But they will notice the diamond clarity of these poems.

Within and among the book’s sections, other groupings arise in a book whose poems are constantly in conversation with one another. By way of example, the fire illuminating the final lines of “Let Them Not Say” burns again in those “flammable colors” in “My Debt,” above. Section three includes several poems whose names, in a kind of titular anaphora, all begin with the word “My”—“My Doubt,” “My Contentment,” “My Hunger,” and so on. It’s a gesture repeated twice in the book’s last section, first in “My Confession,” and again in its closing poem, “My Debt,” whose title slant rhymes with “My Doubt” and refers back to that whole earlier series of “My” poems. A clutch of nine short pieces called “Pebbles” appears in section four, but you will find other beautifully honed, dense poems scattered—like pebbles—throughout the book. Another group of poems in section five all open with a direct address to a “little soul,” but like those pebbles, the little soul also makes appearances in other sections. Such doubling and echoing, together with other repetitions in the form of repeated words, phrases, images, or sounds, help knit this book into a whole and complete fabric.

If I had to sum up in a few phrases what I most appreciate about Ledger, I’d give you these, from my reading notes: A voice that speaks in double registers—personal and universal, grateful and sorrowful, hopeful and despairing—like one of those Appalachian fiddle chords that achingly mingle major and minor keys. A speaker who unflinchingly observes without judging; not “registrar / but witness” (“My Debt,” above). Simple diction and syntax able to communicate complexity and depth. Poems that are accessible without being simplistic whose concerns matter to a wide range of readers. Powerful imagery—sometimes delicate like the “spiderweb’s sequins” in “Mountainal” and the “dapple on certain fish” in “Today, Another Universe,” sometimes joyful and robust like the “ecstatic” bears in “To My Fifties,” and sometimes reverberating with frightening power (“Ghazal for the End of Time”).

To me, Ledger is a watershed. I’ve admired each of Hirshfield’s books in turn (and it was fun to find what I read as subtle references to each of those many titles in these poems), but this one feels like a directional shift and a culmination. The voice, always inclusive and generous, swells to new levels of relevance, revelation, and resonance in these pages. At the same time, it’s unmistakably Hirshfield’s voice, the one so many readers have come to know and love.

What makes poems last? These poems pass my personal test—my mother would have admired them as much as I do. She never had the chance to go to college, but she read widely and knew poems by heart, reciting them while hanging laundry or tucking us five kids in at night. She adored Robert Frost. To me, Frost’s genius lay in writing poems in simple vernacular that was, nevertheless, bounteous, layered, porous, and accomplished enough to satisfy a wide range of readers. Farmers read him, Harvard scholars read him, presidents and dictators read him, and my mother read him. Hirshfield has the knack as well, and I know Mom would have appreciated those “little soul” poems and the calico cat in “My Confession” even without having ever heard of Hadrian, or Schrödinger’s thought experiment. Like Frost’s poems, Hirshfield’s poems delight while they teach—but first, they delight.

Why do I want you to read this book? Because we are in a tough time now, readers, and I genuinely think it may help, the way I hoped that Hirshfield’s brand-new poem “Today, When I Could Do Nothing,” presented here last month, would help. Many poems in Ledger feel eerily prescient about our current confinement, as in “Cataclysm” when “fish unschool” and “sheeps unflock to separately graze.” The poem that closes the first section, “Spell To Be Said Against Hatred,” ought to be daily required reading for us all, especially once we begin to emerge from our homes. Most importantly, though, Ledger’s insistence on a larger, geologic perspective reminds us that the earth preceded and will likely outlast us and that humanity has faced and survived equally daunting challenges in the past. Rather than give in to despair, these poems place their faith in simple perseverance, coupled with humble, personal action. They offer a larger, longer planetary perspective and provide the spiritual food needed to sustain the effort.

To some, COVID-19 is not an anomaly but just the latest in a series of catastrophic universal retaliations for our human hubris. The world has felt so very dark these last few years and weeks. When I read accounts of refrigerator-truck mortuaries and coffins stacked like cordwood in churches, it consoles me to return to “Wood, Salt, Tin,” one of the “little soul” poems so tenderly addressed to our deepest, most vulnerable selves. Sometimes, as Hirshfield says in one interview, it seems “almost irremediably late” for hope. But, this poem and others in Ledger remind us that “even now, it is early.”

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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.