Jane Hirshfield, “An hour is not a house”

With thanks to Temperance Dewar. For Anthony Zaragosa.

An hour is not a house (from Poetry April 2013)
Jane Hirshfield

An hour is not a house,
a life is not a house,
you do not go through them as if
they were doors to another.

Yet an hour can have shape and proportion,
four walls, a ceiling.
An hour can be dropped like a glass.

Some want quiet as others want bread.
Some want sleep.

My eyes went
to the window, as a cat or dog left alone does.


Most of the insights that follow are Temperance’s. The first stanza is stern, telling us that an hour is not a house, a life is not a house. The reason expressed is that we go through houses, apparently, “as if they were doors to another.”

Hirshfield’s speaker harbors some resentment for statements like “passing time” or “this is how to go through life.” Fair enough. But what is so wrong with thinking of a house as something you go through? On that note, who thinks of a house as something one passes through? A house is a door to another house? We seem to recognize a house as something within which we dwell. For that matter, one can say a “life” and an “hour” are also dwelt in.

The speaker is aware of the need for clarification and starts speaking about how an hour might be mistaken for a house. An hour can have “shape and proportion;” “four walls, a ceiling.” The question is what sort of being an hour, a life, a house each are severally. We are in at least an hour and a life; we are in a house. One can imagine a timeline being bent to have shape, to form walls and a ceiling; the “are” is more fundamental than “are in.” To say “proportion,” as Temperance noted, is to go even further and hint at natural standards, relations between things. Not just any house, not just any time spent, but the limits and definition of one’s world. Thus, an hour can be “dropped like a glass,” most unlike a house. Is this too careful a construction? Aren’t there times and lives which shatter? One reason we turn to the artificial and the inanimate is that they not only seem stronger than human frailty, they almost seem more worthwhile if they are not already worshipped as the most worthwhile.

Now we’ve found the deep reason why an hour isn’t a house. It isn’t just our nature or being at stake in an hour. It’s the prospect of pain, of disaster, of coming to grips with being ephemeral. “Some want quiet as others want bread” – hard not to link a house one moves “through” with daily bread earned. A house moved through is part of a routine that involves work. Wanting “quiet” and “sleep” contrast with the machine in motion we usually are. We need to reflect and wonder, too. We want at times to take a break from being active, at other times we want to stop being at all.

It is very strange to so quietly and gently raise the issue of not-being, of the pain that can and does shatter us. But it sort of makes sense when one considers how much we are sheltered because we think we have our house, we think we have a way through life. We feel where we live is life simply. The speaker’s eyes move to the window – she’s looking outside her house (again, credit Temperance) – and something animal-like is awake. There are other types of souls out there: some in houses, some not in houses. There’s a world to be realized, not simply passed through.

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