Jane Hirshfield, “I sat in the sun”

“Draw not nigh hither,” says the Lord to Moses; “put off thy shoes from off they feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus, 3, 5). There is, then, a sacred space [for religious man], and hence a strong, significant space; there are other spaces that are not sacred and so are without structure or consistency, amorphous.

— Eliade Mircea, “The Sacred and the Profane”

In Moses’ case, sacred space is not simply “significant.” God might destroy him for not showing reverence. Or worse yet, abandon him.

It almost sounds blasphemous to speak of creating sacred space. But such space is created every day. Hirshfield speaks of the slightest ritual in the poem below. I moved my chair into sun / I sat in the sun. She confirms it as ritual with her last line. [All of this was done] the way hunger is moved when called fasting.

Perhaps a look at a quiet ordering, a deliberate move into a natural light, can help us understand what is at stake.

I sat in the sun (from Poetry)
Jane Hirshfield

I moved my chair into sun
I sat in the sun
the way hunger is moved when called fasting.

The way hunger is moved when called fasting entails a powerful, mystical movement. “Hunger,” a natural need, is repositioned for the sake of something spiritual. What would ordinarily satisfy turned into a devotion. A weakness, a necessity, crafted into a strength, a greater will.

I am not good at fasting. This poem reminds me of when I need to calm myself or get self-control. Not the extremes of exploding with anger or breaking down in grief, but times I’m a bit anxious or having an allergic reaction. Bringing such experiences to bear on the poem can be considered a distortion. Disciplining the body through fast may involve a higher set of values than physical health. But at least for myself, a first calming breath, a willingness to attend to how each part of the body reacts, involves openness to more while silencing the chatter in my skull.

In that space for silence, in that way Hirshfield posits, the small ritual of the first two lines can be better understood. I moved my chair into sun becomes I sat in the sun. “Moved” becomes “sat;” motion terminates in rest. For a brief moment in this life, an end has been discovered and obtained. A human being places herself and resides. The poem tells nothing else. There’s no pool or radio or kids playing in the yard or magazines.

An indistinct sun, a space thought to be worth joining, becomes something more. “Chair,” an instrument, disappears in action. That she chooses to sit and does sit is of primary importance. “Sun” is revealed as “the sun.” Parts become whole and distinctions are made through experience. Hirshfield strongly implies that meditative actions, done correctly, yield a certain sort of knowledge.

I hope, as you’re reading with me, that you’re finding this less intellectual and more affecting. I hope you’ve taken a deep breath and are calmer. Maybe considering how paying attention to small details, as corny as that can sound, is a valid form of living. Hirshfield advances a specific contention in allowing that hunger is to fasting as moving into sun is to sitting in the sun. Roughly, fasting implies sacrifice, whereas taking in sun might be thought hedonism. For a moment, she grants that both are of equal dignity. All things pass. The simple state of being in the sun passes, too.

1 Comment

  1. That’s elegant, the poem and Ashok’s comments. They are spread out in the sun like a picnic. A picnic perhaps. I loved the slightly dizzying ‘meditation’ – but maybe there’s a more suitable word for the operation – on the word ‘I’. There’s an “intratextual” musical assonance which is intense, almost rapturous, almost mesmerising, this is where everything beautifully shifts. On another level, this verbal dalliance, despite its simplicity and brilliance, is held in check by deliberate qualities in the language, mainly tonal, mainly a matter of authorial control, a kind of internal brake within the music – and makes from mesmerising music not what is intelligible about language but what is intelligible about poetic language. It’s a little bit of magic.

    Think of it as incredibly musical chimes your doorbell might make. But that’s not the point, the point is – who’s calling?

    And the meditation on the word ‘I’? Moved. ‘I’ moved. As it seldom does in this incredibly narcissistic world of ours. Dissolved. Strange how the act of “calling” a thing e.g. ‘hunger” a word, can dissolve the things that are words. ‘I’ is a ghost at the feast of self?

    Maybe the most stunningly successful poetry makes its achievement, not through the words it offers us; but, on the contrary, because of all the words, it does not?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.