When Your Life Looks Back by Jane Hirshfield
MARGINALIA • SKIP TO THE POEM
But yes there are good things, too. Don’t think my vulnerability precludes me from small felicities: a very cheesy egg, like warm sunlight on my tongue. Listening to Balmorhea’s Bowsprit alone in my apartment, barefoot, eyes closed, swaying gently. Hot shower down my back. Friends who check in, just to see if I’m okay. If I’m alive.
Am I hungry? Yes. And my headaches fade in and out every day lately. A few floors up and a few floors down someone is sick. They stay here because hospitals are full. Am I worried about rent? Yes. The days pass in quarantine, jobs dry up, and some old guy neighbour calls you “lady” as a microaggression.
But listen: I told myself I will survive this. I have to. You have to. When we look back on this time we have to be able to tell ourselves, yes, that happened. And yes, we survived it.
How does one live while filled with so much fear, worried about what will happen next? On some days, it is very simple: I open my eyes and look at the lone lightbulb hanging down my ceiling. I say, okay. Okay.
When Your Life Looks Back
When your life looks back—
As it will, at itself, at you—what will it say?
Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool.
Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from.
Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many.
Your life will carry you as it did always,
With ten fingers and both palms,
With horizontal ribs and upright spine,
With its filling and emptying heart,
That wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return.
You gave it. What else could you do?
Immersed in air or in water.
Immersed in hunger or anger.
Curious even when bored.
Longing even when running away.
“What will happen next?”—
the question hinged in your knees, your ankles,
in the in-breaths even of weeping.
Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in.
Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face.
No back of the world existed,
No unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for.
This, your life had said, its only pronoun.
Here, your life had said, its only house.
Let, your life had said, its only order.
And did you have a choice in this? You did—
Sleeping and waking,
the horses around you, the mountains around you,
The buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts.
Those of your own kind around you—
A few times, you stood on your head.
A few times, you chose not to be frightened.
A few times, you held another beyond any measure.
A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure.
Mortal, your life will say,
As if tasting something delicious, as if in envy.
Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.
[expand title=”Endnotes” tag=”h6″ expanded=”true”]
This poem appeared in Come, Thief: Poems by Jane Hirshfield, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Shared here with profound gratitude.
[expand title=”Dear Reader” tag=”h6″]
This little corner of the world is my passion project since 2005. My commitment is that it will always remain free to all. If this place holds meaning for you, would you consider supporting it? This can be in the form of a cup of coffee (+ other ways).
Note that Read A Little Poetry may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through any links on this site. It is at no additional cost to you and helps in the upkeep of this space.
Thank you for being here all these years—and into the future—as I hold poets to the light.