Jane Hirshfield

I wanted something, I wanted. I could not have it.
Irremediable rock of refusal, this world thick with bird song,
tender with starfish and apples.
How calming to say, “Turn right at the second corner,”
and be understood,
and see things arrive as they should at their own destination.
Yet we speak in riddles–
“Turn back at the silence.” “Pass me the mountain.”
To the end we each nod, pretending to understand.

This poem has been humming away in my mind all morning, as I emptied out the vegetable bin to make soup and then scraped the whiskery carrots, peeled the single ancient turnip, scoured dirt from layers of leek. Then I got distracted and repaired the malformed right hand of last night’s quick portrait, moved a few stacks of books to another, even dustier, bookcase, reheated my coffee for the third time, all the while reassuring the very patient dog that yes, we were going to go for a walk as soon I finished a few more tasks, as soon as it stopped raining, as soon as the courier came to pick up a letter… 

What is our destination? the dog never asks. For him, the walk is the destination, every moment an encounter with a sensory world that fills him with gratitude and excitement. But this poem insists that I ask myself what my own destination is. It asks the question with the title and answers it in the very first line, a line that still gives me chills every time I read it.

I wanted something, I wanted. I could not have it.

What is that something that drops away mid-sentence only to be resurrected as it? A lack the speaker cannot even articulate. Not a particular object of desire, just a wanting. A wanting that thrums through human consciousness and complicates every moment of existence, a pulling-away from what is towards what might have been or could yet be, if only things would arrive as they should – that is, not as riddles but in the fullness of their being. But we are told immediately that such yearning is irremediable.
Irremediable. Six mellifluous syllables bashing themselves against a single obdurate one: rock.

Our bones would not shatter on that rock if we could just dwell in this world thick with bird song, tender with starfish and apples. And what a fabulous expanse of that world is conjured by the unexpected juncture of those starfish and those apples! Oceans and orchards, nature unconfined and nature tamed by human intervention. Nature without us and nature including us. Nature that arrests our senses and stops us in our tracks just as bird song does. Nature that, at the same time, remains mysterious, speaking a language we don’t understand, because our human narrative is paratactic – we go forward, always forward, aware of time and space, negotiating the territory. 

Turn back at the silence, says the dog, kindly. (All dogs are Buddhists, like Hirshfield herself.) But I, like the “I” of the poem, still want what I cannot have. Not just being, but understanding.

Susan Glickman's most recent collection is What We Carry (Signal Editions, 2019).