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“Finding the Beauty Commensurate to the Pain”: Ellery Akers and Jane Hirshfield in Conversation

 

Jane Hirshfield and Ellery Akers have each recently released new poetry books centered on climate change and the environment. Both poets have long shared a love of and concern for the natural world. Each has proven a poet of compassion and passionate witness, giving voice to what cannot speak for itself, and each writes powerfully in these new collections about the increasingly endangered earth, its beings and landscapes. Shortly after 2019’s devastating fires in Sonoma County, not far from their homes, during which both poets experienced the multiple associated power outages and were prepared for evacuation, Akers and Hirshfield offered a benefit event at the Sierra Club’s national headquarters in Oakland, California. They read from their not-yet-published books and spoke of their concern for the planet. What follows is an edited transcript of a follow-up conversation between the two poets, six months after that reading.

Ellery Akers: Jane, I’ve been so moved by your new book, Ledger. I feel poetry is an important way to deal with the losses we’re seeing, because the language of poetry is subterranean: it drops beneath the polarizing clichés, the glib slogans, and speaks the language of the soul. “This did not have to happen. No part of this had to happen,” you say in one poem, amazed by both the beauties and the catastrophes of the world.

I never feel your poems have an agenda, and your distress with simplistic responses and clung-to denial is clear. In “Fecit,” you acknowledge your own life’s role in climate change. And I love the line in “Spell to Be Said Against Hatred” that incants “Until anger and insult know themselves burnable legs of a useless table.”

One of my favorite poems in the book is “As If Hearing Heavy Furniture Moved on the Floor Above Us”:

As things grow rarer, they enter the ranges of counting.
Remain this many Siberian tigers,
that many African elephants. Three hundred red-legged egrets.
We scrape from the world its tilt and meander of wonder
as if eating the last burned onions and carrots from a cast-iron pan.
Closing eyes to taste better the char of ordinary sweetness.

That word char really got to me—it slipped underneath my defenses, and made me remember how much of the world is burning.

What inspired you to write Ledger? Was it difficult to write about so much loss? And how did you arrive at the wonderful tone of the book?

Jane Hirshfield: I’ve written poems about the biosphere’s imperiled condition for decades; my work had been in eco-poetics anthologies, the Sierra Club’s magazine, a Save the Redwoods newsletter, even—I was told—quoted in an environmental lawsuit appeal brief. But starting in 2014, the intensity steepened. That was when the grief of world-loss became an unceasing and foreground part of my awareness. It may have happened when I wrote what became Ledger’s opening poem “Let Them Not Say,” the one that begins, “Let them not say: we did not see it. / We saw.” I began noticing silence. The self-defeating and unholy and deliberate silencing of scientists and facts. The unnoticed and untallied damage happening all around us, while we go about our daily lives. The silence of a cut-down tree, victim of drought-stress and beetles, that had been, only that morning, home to hawks and squirrels. And also, the silence that lets all forms of injustice continue: “The fed consider the hungry and stay silent,” one poem ends.

The book’s tone…perhaps it is the sound of tears turned to language. Needing language first for the work of stating their reason for being, then for the work of those reasons’ ending. Poems so often, throughout history, have worked to make visible and audible whatever the mainstream culture passes over, ignores. When I began writing this book’s poems, climate change was less attended to than it now is. That shift, at last, is currently happening. But it could have happened seventy years ago—Rachel Carson wrote of melting Arctic ice in 1949.

I wrote these poems to speak of the silence, and also—as you do as well, so splendidly, in Swerve—of the speaking. There is both solace and solidarity in knowing one isn’t alone. In knowing that Bill McKibben exists, doing his steady work both in his books and in the organization 350.org. That you do. That thousands of research scientists whose name I don’t know continue their work of observing, measuring, understanding, naming.

Akers: That makes me think of your poem in Ledger “In a Former Coal Mine in Silesia”:

In a former coal mine in Silesia, a thousand feet inside the earth,
a tongue kept speaking.

[ … ]

And the tongues, the faithless tongues, continue speaking,
as lovers will, because they still love, long past the hour there is
nothing left to say.

Your poems have also long spoken about interdependence—the interconnectedness of humans and animals and plants—but in this collection the erasures step forward, center stage: “Fish unschool, sheep unflock to separately graze.”

Hirshfield: Thank you for reading my work so deeply, Ellery. It’s no surprise that many of us are responding now to the crisis of beings who must try to live on a shared and increasingly fragile planet. Another Bay Area woman with a new book out this spring along these lines is Tess Taylor, with Rift Zone. Brenda Hillman’s sequence of books of elemental focus are part of it too, and C. D. Wright’s final, posthumous book, a love song to beech trees. That growing urgency is surely also why you wrote the poems that came to be Swerve. This isn’t something entirely new or recent for you, either. I’ve admired for many years your poems and books, especially the way you bring your detailed, naturalist’s eye and ear into poems that serve also as deeper explorations.

I love—and find quite courageous—the explicit arc of this new book. It begins with poems about climate change and insect decline, continues with poems chronicling exemplary women who work with and on behalf of the beyond-human world, women like Wangari Maathai and Jane Goodall, and then ends with the passionate, clarion call to action. The last poem about Rachel Carson is one of my favorites. Its presentation of Carson’s persistence, passion, and resolve becomes in turn your resolve, all our resolve. Swerve’s subtitle is a carried placard and rock-planted flag: Poems on Environmentalism, Feminism, and Resistance. Its intention of activism is unabashedly declared. It closes, I couldn’t help but notice, with a poem in the inclusive grammar of the first-person-plural “we,” the same grammar as my “Spell to Be Said Against Hatred.” Yours is a third-person “we,” since the poem is a dramatic monologue, but we humans can’t help but read “we” and understand ourselves as also inside it. The last sentence of my book is a request to leaf, spider, octopus, for forgiveness. The last sentence of yours is a rally cry of encouragement: “We can do this.”

Akers: Finding my way back into a sense of agency was this book’s process and evolution. I was working on Sierra Club campaigns, feeling stricken as the current administration rolled back one environmental protection after another—the Stream Protection Rule, the Clean Water Plan. At first writing a poem seemed a frail thing, but one frail thing followed another, and soon I had a book, one that helped me move from despair to empowerment. But I, too, had to start with grief. I think many of us are numb to the grief we feel about what’s happening to the earth, and it’s important to feel that grief before we move forward. Here’s a section of a poem about that:

Fewer

The monarchs
are fewer

just one or two today fluttering over the ocean

Sometimes I can’t stand to think of the sea becoming barren
the kelp gone the sculpin

just a sheen on the water

I wonder if the ocean shudders as we step into it
At least we can’t thin the stars out of the sky

It’s clearly a dark time for the earth. But we have come through dark times before and come out victorious. There are, as you noticed, several poems in Swerve about Rachel Carson, because she gives me hope. It didn’t seem possible in the sixties that she was going to defeat polluters and corporations. But she got DDT banned and paved the way for the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. So we can’t give up; we don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel what’s needed now is what Christiana Figueres calls “relentless optimism.” That’s why the last section of the book is called “Resistance,” and has poems like “We Have the Power to Pull Back from the Brink.”

Hirshfield: That’s one of my favorite poems from Swerve. It’s hopeful. It’s performative, creating what it speaks as it speaks it. It is also knowledgeable. It taught me something I didn’t know about hemoglobin and chlorophyll, and in that same passage of science-instruction, raised also tears. I’ve become a person committed to the alliance of science and poetry. This poem embodies that wholeness of knowledge and being seamlessly. To learn and to grieve at the same time is to be a person uncompartmentalized and unbroken.

Akers: Thanks, Jane. You know, one of the many things I love about Ledger is your ability to keep celebrating the beauty of the world, no matter what, even as we “walk into the time that’s coming” All through the book, which, to me, feels both dark and radiant, I feel your rapt attention: “Is there anywhere on earth one branch that has never been perched on,” you ask, and write with such affection about porcupines, falcons, deer in the rain. Could you speak about how the beauty of the world sustains you, even in this strange time?

Hirshfield: Remembering that beauty was, for this book, the arc of its evolution. It’s why the final poem, “My Debt,” offers its closing apology:

Forgive,
spine-covered leaf, soft-bodied spider,
octopus lifting
one curious tentacle back to the hand of the diver
that in such black ink
I set down your flammable colors.

I came to understand newly that love outweighs loss, that we only feel losses if we treasure what is vanishing. You spoke about the way numbness can be blinding, can lead to inaction. Grief without hope can also be blinding. Despair cannot solve its own causing. I had, in writing the poems of these past six years, to re-find my sense of the world’s abundance, opulence, resilience, beauty, because only that way could I go on at all.

This is, I think, the secret handshake between our two books. We each felt the need to describe an age that is catastrophic, and we each knew that only by seeing also the beauty, and finding the beauty commensurate to the pain, worth praising and worth preserving, could we bear catastrophe’s facing. How else, as your poem “Not Too Late” says, can a person write, in quiet, authoritative solidarity the thought:

The blackberry leaves that turn silver
When they flip over in the wind
Know there is still time.

The blackberry’s resilience is not the least of what now needs remembering. We are not alone in this work, or in this world. The whole of existence works so hard, in every moment, to continue its entangled, hard-won, sweetness-and-thorn-bearing embodiment in time. And we with it, eating its fruit, scratching our arms on the thorns as we reach to harvest.

 

Ellery Akers is the author of Swerve: Poems on Environmentalism, Feminism, and Resistance, Practicing the Truth, Knocking on the Earth, and Sarah’s Waterfall. She is the winner of thirteen writing awards, and her poetry has been published in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Also a naturalist and landscape artist, she lives in Marin County, California.

Award-winning poet, essayist, and translator Jane Hirshfield is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Ledger; The Beauty; Come, Thief; and Given Sugar, Given Salt. Hirshfield is also the author of two collections of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, and has edited and co-translated four books collecting the work of world poets from the past: The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan; Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women; Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems; and The Heart of Haiku.

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