Jane Hirshfield, “Late Prayer”

Moonlight fell on the lake, and I felt myself drawn to the waves covered by darkness, still visible, with a rich, silky texture of various shades of black. They were too elegant to remind of anything painful or horrible, but I’ve wanted to come to terms with disappointment recently, and I found myself trying to force a theme onto the moment. I stopped myself and simply watched.

A bit more should be said about disappointment. I’m ticked at myself, really. I mean, there are people for whom I had expectations, but if I give a little thought, I wonder what the heck I was thinking. To be sure, there have been times I’ve gone further, wondering if in excusing people from treating me well I simultaneously taught myself not to trust anyone, but I haven’t gone that far lately. Now, if someone has failed to meet expectations, I think I asked too much of them at a certain time.

Which brings me back to those shades of black, moving as they will, beyond guilt. Tenderness does not choose its own uses. It goes out to everything equally — did tenderness reach out to those waves, infusing them with its beauty?

Late Prayer (from The Lives of the Heart)
Jane Hirshfield

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally,
circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron bucket,
a single nail, a single ruby--
all the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound.

Tenderness does not choose its own uses. It goes out to everything equally, circling rabbit and hawk. Hirshfield boldly gives us tenderness itself, an ideal that is its own force, its own agency. It does not choose its own uses because of greater purpose, that of going to everything equally, surrounding them. Rabbits run away; hawks patrol the skies; hawks swoop down to menace rabbits. Tenderness circles the rabbit and hawk as individuals, seemingly only incidentally being there when hawks kill and eat rabbits. Nonetheless, it remains present, even when destruction and death are central.

Some animals, fixated on their survival and being, cannot choose tenderness. We can; it acts exactly the way we expect, after all. Hirshfield shifts the scene to objects we’ve made and selected — sometimes, a product is established through simple sensation. Look: in the iron bucket, a single nail, a single ruby– all the heavens and hells. A nail and a ruby could have been broken from anything. That they’re separate, in a bucket, testifies to decay and disorder. Hells are not hard to imagine even without attendant decay and disorder. How many of us hurt because of someone still beautiful, whom we imagine enjoying everything without us?

The same imagery, though, brings us back to “all the heavens.” The ruby and nail are still whole enough to be recognized. The iron bucket circles them both. It does not mock tenderness, as it carries the objects. Your eye carries it all: “Look.” You can choose tenderness. How? They rattle in the heart and make one sound. The bucket does not carry perfectly, the objects are imperfectly placed, everything rattles.

You don’t choose tenderness by immediately calling it providential. Believing that the hawk mauling the rabbit is actually good, or that after a fire, a nail and ruby lying in a bucket indicate hope — all that talk is too much justification, poorly timed. The tenderness that circles begins a man-made phenomenon. It emanates from you, goes out to objects, circles them. It comprehends the pain and suffering of the world, that hawk and rabbit are caught up in a cycle of violence, that what we make goes to pieces. That’s tenderness — if we did not take pain seriously, we could not be tender.

You choose tenderness through the oneness of suffering and being. This is a strange happening. There are times you think you’re not tender, fixated on yourself. But it has gone out and circled things in the world already, and in a way, the things in the world it circles actually produce it. You sensed the object, and that was production enough.


  1. What a beautiful reading of what is one of my favourite of Hirshfield’s poems. Thank you.

    You touch lightly on a point that I have focused on almost obsessively in my own reading of this poem – the image of a single ruby (which I see symbolic of value, of beauty, the extraordinary) and a single nail (the opposite of ruby in that it is ordinary, prosaic, worth almost nothing) making one sound in the iron bucket. From the perspective of tenderness, or the objectivity of sound, they are one thing; distinctions of value or worth are irrelevant. The same is true of tenderness – or love. The “enlightened self” doesn’t choose to love one thing and not another. All things have equal weight, equal importance in the eye of the Divine. All things (all beings) are worthy of love.

    Again, thank you. I so enjoyed your review.

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