Contemporary American Women Poets: Kate Daniels and Jane Hirschfield
Back in 1998, I heard Kathleen Norris read one of Kate Daniels’ poems at a reading she was giving in Washington DC. I loved the poem so much that I hunted Kate Daniels down on Google, to read more of her work. In the summer of 2001, I signed up for the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, specifically because Kate Daniels was one of the poets ; I signed up for her poetry workshop. I learned much from that workshop and from our conference. In the process, we became friends and correspondents.
Kate teaches at Vanderbilt University; she is married and the mother of three. The poem that initially grabbed me was one from her fourth book, Four Testimonies, from the section called “Portrait of the Artist as Mother:”
Opening the diaper, each morning
becomes the third day, when God
created the earth, late
in the afternoon, mountains
and continents firmly in place,
the waterways swinging between,
He turned His attention
to the lowlands, malodorous
and steamy, the swampy
muck of undersides mutating
already into something new,
future home of the uncivilized
creatures who will sleep in their own
dung, and rise, unfazed, a dazzling
smile ripping through the bars
of the crib, sunlight breaking
like tears on their slithering
bodies and their unhaired heads.
( Kate Daniels, Four Testimonies)
Since then, I have learned that Kate’s poems are generally longer than this one; she favors narrative and dramatic poetry. Another one of my favorites is called “In the Marvelous Dimension,” also from Four Testimonies - it’s about the San Francisco earthquake of 1984, when the Bay Bridge collapsed in on itself; it’s told in the voices of four people in the bridge collapse. It’s harrowing. Her ability to write about suffering with intensity and originality, “telling, not showing,” is one of the things I love about her poetry.
She now has five books published: The White Wave (1984), The Niobe Poems (1988), Four Testimonies (1998), A Walk in Victoria's Secret (2010).
I met Jane Hirschfield just once, back in the Spring of 2001 at Baylor University’s Art and Soul Festival. However, I was reading her poetry before that, and into the present. Her lyric poetry seems to me to be influenced by her training and experience with Zen meditation; there’s a magic in the condensed images that draws me in. Here is one of my favorites of hers:
what falls away with ease.
Not only the heavy apple,
but also the dried brown strands
of autumn iris from their core.
To let your body
love this world
that gave itself to your care
in all of its ripeness,
and will take itself from you
in equal ripeness and ease,
is also harvest.
And however sharply
you are tested –
this sorrow, that great love –
it too will leave on that clean knife.
Jane Hirschfield, in The October Palace
As much as I admire her poetry, it is Jane Hirschfield’s book of essays, Nine Gates – Entering the Mind of Poetry, to which I return again and again. Each essay is beautifully written, and the uniqueness of her perspective stays with me. My favorite essay is “Facing the Lion: The Way of Shadow and Light in Some twentieth-Century Poems.” In it, she examines “the ways the poetry of heaven and the poetry of hell speak to one another and require one another…” Particularly, her study of Allen Ginsberg’s “The Lion for Real” in this essay spoke to me about my own long refusal to “face the lion” of my own anger, both in poetry and in life. I can’t recommend this essay collection highly enough!
Jane Hirschfield has six books of poetry published: Alaya ( 1982), Of Gravity and Angels ( 1988), The October Palace ( 1994), The Lives of the Heart ( 1997), Given Sugar, Given Salt ( 2001), and Come, Thief ( 2011). Her book of essays is Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry ( 1997)