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Buddhadharma : Summer 2006
buddhadharma| 65 |summer 2006 feature reviews Shizen ichimi,” asserts a Japanese proverb: “Poetry and Zen are one.” Although that proverb will not suit every poet, it well suits the long line of poet-monks and lay practitioners who make up the Zen poetic tradition. From the well-known poem by Huineng that earned him dharma transmission, through the poignant waka of Saigyo, the elegant haiku of Basho, and the rugged lyrics of Gary Snyder, a distinguished lineage may be traced. As Sam Hamill remarks in The Poetry of Zen, monastic and lay poets together comprise a “long, noble tradi- tion,” as integral to Zen as the practice of sitting meditation. The American poet Jane Hirshfield is a vibrant exemplar of that noble tradition. Born in New York City in 1953, Hirsh- field was educated at Princeton University, where she took a degree in creative writing and translation. From 1974 to 1982, she studied Soto Zen at the San Francisco Zen Center, spending three years in monastic practice at Tassajara and a year at Green Gulch Farm. In 1979 she received lay ordination. Looking back on her Bud- dhist training, Hirshfield has remarked that “the eight years I spent in full-time practice of Zen during my twenties made me who I am; that experience and its con- tinuing life in my life underlie everything I have done since.” The practice of zazen taught her “how to pay attention, how to delve, how to question and enter, how to stay with ... whatever is going on.” And for the poet Hirshfield, whose first col- lection of poems (Alaya, 1982) appeared three years after her ordination, the prac- tice of poetry has been a parallel pursuit, a means toward a common purpose. “In the end,” she believes, “Zen is simply about looking at human being and human nature, about who we are in the world and how the world is. And as a poet, that is also what I want to explore” (Atlantic Unbound, September 1997). After is Hirshfield’s sixth collection of poems and her first since Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001). Here, as in her previ- ous book, Hirshfield explores such famil- iar Buddhist themes as impermanence, emptiness, and the suchness of being. And here, as before, the poet’s desire to explore “human being” is everywhere apparent, as is her distinctive blend of Zen and Western literary traditions. Elliptical in style and contemplative in spirit, the sev- enty-three poems of this new collection address a wide variety of subjects, includ- ing such tangible objects as fog, ants, flowering vetch, and the garden of Ryo- anji, as well as such intangible states as hesitation, hope, and judgment, and such linguistic phenomena as the words “of,” “to,” and “once.” But for all their diver- sity, these spare and sometimes riddling poems have an overarching intention, which is to define the human in relation to the nonhuman, the world of “humor, Ben Howard iS a profeSSor of engliSH at alfred UniverSity in alfred, new york, and iS tHe aUtHor of Several BookS of poetry. He iS a longtime StUdent of Zen and vipaSSana. words where thoughts Begin “ after: Poems By Jane hirshfield harperCollins, 2006 97 pages; $23.95 (hardcover) reviewed by Ben howard marylang