Today, Another Universe: Jane Hirshfield’s Stunning Poem of Perspective and Consolation
Steadying solace for those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another.”
By Maria Popova
It is our biological destiny to exist — and then not. Each of us eventually returns their stardust to the universe, to be constellated into some other ephemeral emissary of spacetime. Eventually, our entire species will go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo and the Romantics; eventually, our home star will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, taking with it everything we have ever known — Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the guillotine and the perfect Fibonacci sequence of the pine cone.
Meanwhile, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we busy ourselves with survival and with searching for beauty, for truth, for assurance between the bookends. The feeling of that search is what we call meaning; the people who light our torches to help us see better, who transmit our discoveries from one consciousness to another, are what we call artists. Artists are also the ones who help reconcile us to the fragility that comes with our creaturely nature and strews our search with so much suffering. Suffering — biological and psychological, in private and en masse — has always accompanied our species, as it has every species. But we alone have coped by transmuting our suffering into beauty, by making symphonies and paintings and poems out of our fragility — beauty that does not justify the suffering, but does make it more bearable, does help the sufferers next to us and after us, in space and in time, suffer less, in ways the originating consciousness can never quantify in the receiving, never estimate their reach across the sweep of centuries and sufferings.
Few search-artists have served as greater agents of transmutation than Jane Hirshfield — a poet of optimism and of lucidity, a champion of science and an ordained Buddhist, a poet who could write “So few grains of happiness / measured against all the dark / and still the scales balance,” a poet who can balance and steady us against those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another” with her wondrous new collection Ledger (public library).
As we wake in another, searching for sense and stability, practicing the practice of life within chaos theory, I asked Jane to read for us one of the most beautiful and perspectival poems from this miraculous book — a poem of consolation by way of calibration; an invitation to broaden our perspective — scientific, temporal, and humanistic — and weigh the immediate against the eternal.
TODAY, ANOTHER UNIVERSE
by Jane Hirshfield
The arborist has determined:
senescence beetles canker
quickened by drought
but in any case
not prunable not treatable not to be propped.
The branch from which the sharp-shinned hawks and their mate-cries.
The trunk where the ant.
The red squirrels’ eighty-foot playground.
The bark cambium pine-sap cluster of needles.
The Japanese patterns the ink-net.
The dapple on certain fish.
Today, for some, a universe will vanish.
then just another silence.
The silence of after, once the theater has emptied.
Of bewilderment after the glacier,
the species, the star.
Something else, in the scale of quickening things,
will replace it,
this hole of light in the light, the puzzled birds swerving around it.
A quarter century later, the poem echoes Hirshfield’s short, stunning poem “Jasmine” from her indispensable 1997 collection The Lives of the Heart — one of the truest, most beautiful perspectives ever polished in language:
by Jane Hirshfield
“Almost the twenty-first century” —
how quickly the thought will grow dated,
Our hopes, our future,
will pass like the hopes and futures of others.
And all our anxieties and terrors,
nights of sleeplessness,
will appear then as they truly are —
Stumbling, delirious bees in the tea scent of jasmine.
Complement this fragment of Hirshfield’s altogether re-saning Ledger with other poetic masterpieces of perspective — “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “A Brave and Starling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Immortality” by Lisel Mueller, “Cold Solace” by Anna Belle Kaufman, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, “The Everlasting Self” by Tracy K. Smith, “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson — then revisit physicist Brian Greene on the poetry of existence and the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives amid an impartial universe.
Published March 15, 2020