The Living Fire: New and Selected Poemsby Edward Hirsch
In poems chronicling insomnia (“the blue-rimmed edge / of outer dark, those crossroads / where we meet the dead”), art and culture (poems on Edward Hopper and Paul Celan, love poems in the voices of Baudelaire and
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A rich and significant collection of more than one hundred poems, drawn from a lifetime of “wild gratitude” in poetry.
In poems chronicling insomnia (“the blue-rimmed edge / of outer dark, those crossroads / where we meet the dead”), art and culture (poems on Edward Hopper and Paul Celan, love poems in the voices of Baudelaire and Gertrude Stein, a meditation on two suitcases of children’s drawings that came out of the Terezin concentration camp), and his own experience, including the powerful, frank self-examinations in his more recent work, Edward Hirsch displays stunning range and quality. Repeatedly confronting the darkness, his own sense of godlessness (“Forgive me, faith, for never having any”), he also struggles with the unlikely presence of the divine, the power of art to redeem human transience, and the complexity of relationships. Throughout the collection, his own life trajectory enriches the poems; he is the “skinny, long-beaked boy / who perched in the branches of the old branch library,” as well as the passionate middle-aged man who tells his lover, “I wish I could paint you— / . . . / I need a brush for your hard angles / and ferocious blues and reds. / . . . / I wish I could paint you / from the waist down.”
Grieving for the losses occasioned by our mortality, Hirsch’s ultimate impulse as a poet is to praise—to wreathe himself, as he writes, in “the living fire” that burns with a ferocious intensity.
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For the Sleepwalkers
Tonight I want to say something wonderful for the sleepwalkers who have so much faith in their legs, so much faith in the invisible
arrow carved into the carpet, the worn path that leads to the stairs instead of the window,
the gaping doorway instead of the seamless mirror.
I love the way that sleepwalkers are willing to step out of their bodies into the night,
to raise their arms and welcome the darkness,
palming the blank spaces, touching everything.
Always they return home safely, like blind men who know it is morning by feeling shadows.
And always they wake up as themselves again.
That’s why I want to say something astonishing like: Our hearts are leaving our bodies.
Our hearts are thirsty black handkerchiefs flying through the trees at night, soaking up the darkest beams of moonlight, the music
of owls, the motion of wind- torn branches.
And now our hearts are thick black fists flying back to the glove of our chests.
We have to learn to trust our hearts like that.
We have to learn the desperate faith of sleepwalkers who rise out of their calm beds
and walk through the skin of another life.
We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised.
The Poet At Seven
He could be any seven- year-old on the lawn,
holding a baseball in his hand, ready to throw.
He has the middle- class innocence of an American,
except for his blunt features and dark skin that mark him as a Palestinian or a Jew,
his forehead furrowed like a question,
his concentration camp eyes, nervous, grim,
and too intense. He has the typical blood of the exile, the refugee, the victim.
Look at him looking at the catcher for a sign—
so violent and competitive, so unexceptional,
except for an ancestral lamentation,
a shadowy, grief- stricken need for freedom laboring to express itself through him.
M i l k
My mother wouldn’t be cowed into nursing and decided that formula was healthier than the liquid from her breasts.
And so I never sucked a single drop from the source, a river dried up.
It was always bottled for me.
But one night in my mid- thirties in a mirrored room off Highway 59
a woman who had a baby daughter
turned to me with an enigmatic smile and cupped my face in her chapped hands and tipped her nipple into my mouth.
This happened a long time ago in another city and it is wrong to tell about it.
It was infantile to bring it up in therapy.
And yet it is one of those moments—
misplaced, involuntary—that swim up out of the past without a conscience:
She lifts my face and I taste it—
the sudden spurting nectar,
the incurable sweetness that is life.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Meet the Author
Edward Hirsch is the author of seven previous collections of poetry, including Wild Gratitude, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Special Orders. He has also published four prose books, among them How to Read a Poem, a national best seller. He has received numerous awards for his poetry, including a MacArthur Fellowship, and publishes regularly in a wide variety of magazines and journals, including American Poetry Review and The New Yorker. A longtime teacher in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, he is now the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
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