Jane Hirshfield, “Pyracantha and Plum”

Out the window, I would spy a mulberry tree and a pair of birches which were set against a coniferous treeline separating our yard from the neighbor’s. When the window was open, the air had a certain freshness, even on the days I was plagued by allergies. I always felt trees have some share of majesty, however small—they are going to grow, their roots will expand, they will inherit the earth. The driveway next to the mulberry tree deteriorated, a basketball hoop had better days, and a tool shed devolved to its material cause, becoming crumpled metal.

What does it mean to see our lives in the places that age with us, in the natural world we think we know? This almost sounds a ludicrous question, as I’m sitting in front of the computer right now eating cake donuts from 7/11. But a moment’s reflection leads me back to the time I was eager to take long walks, trying to find the most beautiful scene I could possibly imagine and make it part of my memories.

So I wonder what exactly I want at such times. Hirshfield places herself between two seasons, each with symbolic weight. Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree, spring blossoms seeming tender, hopeful, on another. It feels like her winter is ending, and part of moving from being “chastened” to becoming “hopeful” involves searching for and accepting moments of inspiration:

Pyracantha and Plum (from The Atlantic)
Jane Hirshfield

Last autumn's chastened berries still on one tree,
spring blossoms seeming tender,
hopeful, on another.
The view from this window
much as it was ten years ago, fifteen.
Yet it seems this morning
a self-portrait both clearer and darker,
as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel
had walked through the garden, looking hard.

As of the first sentence, the world and her feelings are in a precarious position. The berries are out of season, the blossoms are new and delicate. Things seem “tender, hopeful.” I remember plenty of times I thought I was making progress, I thought I had something good, and in truth all I had was more expectation than skill, more hope than result. Recall of those times does not make me feel listless or numb, but it does make me anxious and unsure. It is not clear Hirshfield is ready to find or accept inspiration, should it come.

Hirshfield identifies feelings like anxiety or insecurity with the whole of life. We don’t really outgrow growing up, struggling with possibility and change—the view from this window much as it was ten years ago, fifteen. But all her considerations so far are background of a sort, as she has begun to establish how she is reflected in the landscape. Yet it seems this morning a self-portrait both clearer and darker—we didn’t need her to tell us she saw herself through the window. However, she has realized something. Outside is less a portrait, more a “self-portrait.” She sees what she wants to see, her seeing an instinctive crafting. The self-portrait she paints is “both clearer and darker,” and is strangely enough related to the work of genius: as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel had walked through the garden, looking hard.

This could initially seem too large, too out-of-place. Is she overindulging a melancholy reflection, proclaiming herself triumphant no matter what? The funny thing is that as adolescents, we indulge a similar type of ego defense often, e.g. “it’s my brilliance that caused me to miss every note at the piano recital.” I don’t think that’s occurring here, as the speaker has demonstrated a quiet, building maturity. “Some Rembrandt or Brueghel,” operating while she slept, gave her not only a new day but the possibility of seeing that much more in this new day. A genius could look at the garden and see her life written upon it. That’s not untrue, and it gives rise to a specific hope. Her time spent reflecting on her feelings, on her all-too-natural reactions, need not be pointless indulgence but the beginning of communication. If it is possible someone else could see her portrait as meaningful, it is certainly possible she can keep painting, working to depict the mystery at hand.

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