The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems
Edward Hirsch
Knopf, $27.00 (hardcover)

Unlike many poets, Edward Hirsch doesn’t seem interested in settling into the modes that have brought him professional success. Though The Living Fire is a retrospective, it also includes a generous sampling of new work whose depth of emotion and technical mastery is bound to keep on giving long after the first read. Indeed, since the publication of his debut collection in 1981, Hirsch’s aesthetic vision has been grounded in the desire for clarity of both feeling and thought and an attempt to preserve that clarity through all the changes and transformations—be they political, artistic, or personal—any artist working in the last 30 years would have felt compelled to address. A folklorist of the good and the ugly, a poet who acknowledges the pollution of our surroundings yet remains steadfastly committed to mining them for joy and humility, Hirsch takes in the chaos of the world and channels it toward praise and catharsis, often grappling in the dark, as in “Once, in Helsinki,” where the speaker witnesses a sunrise in blizzard-like conditions and is simultaneously “mesmerized / by the frozen light” and “alone in a world / without a vision.” Free from intellectual and formal pretensions, Hirsch deals in epiphany, with the hard-hitting reality of identity, family drama, divorce, history, the sacred, and art itself in poems whose allure lies in their mirroring of our own existential and spiritual realities. These poems embrace the multitude of our experience in this day and age, remembering that we must “Let what rises live with what descends,” even as we come to the realization that the outcome promises no escape or transcendence, but rather creatures’ “Wreathing themselves in the living fire.”