Edward Hirsch’s latest collection of poems, The Living Fire, shares some striking similarities with greatest hits album rock bands release with a few new songs and then the best of their catalogue. While the hints of what made them great is still evident in some moments, the new stuff pales in comparison to the older work. The Living Fire kicks off with a section of poems entitled “New Poems.” Hirsch follows this up with a tour of selected poems from various publications of his, starting in the mid 70’s and stretching to 2008.
The new poems fail to match the poems highlighted from Hirsch’s older work. That is not to say that the poems written in 2010 aren’t interesting. “Dark Tour” in particular stands out, but there is something missing in comparison to his older poems. A small part of it may be that while the rest of the poems are ordered chronologically from oldest to more recent, Hirsch’s new poems sit at the front of the book. This arrangement set my initial expectations for Hirsch’s work, since The Living Fire was my first encounter with his writings.
Despite my relative disappointment with his new stuff, The Living Fire serves as a great primer to Hirsch’s previous work. With selected poems coming from various points in his career, this collection gives readers a chance to see how an artist tackles similar topics from different perspectives as he ages. In Hirsch’s case, the two most prominent themes are insomnia and a belief in God. Cursed by the former and lacking the latter, these issues are impressively addressed by Hirsch through a variety of techniques. The last poem in the book is entitled, “After a Long Night.”
Hirsch’s voice is clearest when he relays the experiences of his childhood and teenage years to his readers. From the description of seven year old Hirsch playing baseball at summer camp to his first sexual encounter in the back of a movie theater and being at his girlfriend’s side at a pre-Roe v. Wade hotel room abortion, the writing is clear enough to make the reader feel as if they’ve been transported to the moment in time Hirsch’s writing captures.
There are poems from Hirsch’s older work that capture the mundane, an instance that would pass others without so much as a silent acknowledgment. In pieces like “Commuters,” where Hirsch shines a bright light on the emptiness of the “repetitive” nature of commuting and “Fast Break,” where the moving pieces of the 10 players on a basketball court during the eponymous moment, Hirsch brings the mundane to life.
In a series of poems called, “Lectures on Love,” Hirsch assumes the voice of prominent figures of culture such as Charles Baudelaire and Gertrude Stein in pieces describing their sentiments about love. Ably transitioning from the various voices, it is just another reminder of the disappointment one is left with after re-examining Hirsch’s new poems.
Despite the deep unhappiness of the individuals in the previously mentioned poem about commuting, “To the Subway” is a peon to Hirsch’s experience riding the Lexington Ave subway from Grand Central to Brooklyn. Naturally incorporating subway vernacular, express becomes expressly and Atlantic refers to both the station and ocean, the poem brings to life the rumble of the underground.
Thinking about The Living Fire, there is one question that remains unanswered. What motivated The New York Times to add this book to the list. Disregard my disappointment with Hirsch’s new work. what makes this collection notable in 2010? The poems culled from older collections have already been published. They were already available to the public. The new poems make up just 20 pages of a 230 page book. Was there not another book of fiction or collection of poems worthy of entry on the list that was wholly published in 2010? How many greatest hits albums, with little in the way of unreleased material, make it on to end of year lists for best album?