Jennifer Haupt

One True Thing

Poet Jane Hirshfield: Today, When I Could Do Nothing

The first day of sheltering in place.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

Creating a poem in the midst of an exploding pandemic, the beauty of words in a world spinning out of control, can be a powerful form of self-care. Award-winning poet, essayist, and translator Jane Hirshfield knows this well.

Curt Richter Used With Permission
Source: Curt Richter Used With Permission

At midnight, March 16, 2020, the San Francisco Bay Area six-county shelter-in-place protocols went into effect. On the morning of March 17th, Hirshfield woke to what she describes as a changed world scape. “Especially the sound-scape,” she says. “There were no cars, no construction—only this sudden, extraordinary, profound silence, holding a few birdsongs. By that silence, I knew myself in an altered existence."

One line from her new book of poems, Ledger, stepped forward with new meaning: ‘You go to sleep in one world and wake in another.’

Hirshfield says, "The catastrophe taking place in the world was difficult to reconcile with the small daily events within the perimeter of my immediate senses: the fragrance and peace of my cottage and garden; the warmth of sunshine; but then bringing in the morning paper with carefully gloved hands, and letting it sit for a few hours before reading it, just to be safe. And then there was what I was reading when I finally did. How could I understand all this as one continuous fabric?"

And so, she did what she has done all her life in unfathomable times: She wrote a poem. She took the details of her morning and wove them into the larger context of world events.

"The ant was actual and I had just put it back out in the garden," Hirshfield says. "In writing a poem, though, description turns into a path of understanding. Some better sense of my own place amid the larger shared fates of humans and other beings took on names and shapes by which it could be known, taken in."

"My sense of helplessness became clearer to me, alongside a reminder of its opposite. There is always something a person can do. You can put an ant outside. You can try to understand more widely, more deeply. In the face of bewilderment and confusion and that morning’s strangeness and uncertainty, I did two things. I set an ant back out on its home ground and I wrote a poem. And of course, I did also a third thing, the same thing all of us, soon nationally, globally, were being asked to do: agreed to do nothing; agreed to solitude and to living through what was happening as best I could, with open eyes and an open heart. And that sense of solidarity and reminder of purpose also helped me.” 

The result is the following poem by Jane Hirshfield:

     Today, When I Could Do Nothing

Today, when I could do nothing,

I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,

still being delivered

to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,

time,

a garden,

silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked

the morning paper, as if loosened ink

taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer—warm—

then onto the back of a cushion.

Small black ant, alone,

crossing a navy cushion,

moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,

it could not have found again its nest.

What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,

even while walking my hand,

which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,

whose ant-heart I could not fathom—

how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,

contribute nothing

beyond staying distant from my own kind,

I did this.   

Jane Hirshfield, in poems described by The Washington Post as belonging “among the modern masters” and by The New York Times as “passionate and radiant,” addresses the urgent immediacies of our time. Ranging from the political, ecological, and scientific to the metaphysical, personal, and passionate, Hirshfield's latest collection of poetry is Ledger.