Jane Hirshfield's "Zero Plus Anything Is a World"
Thoughts on labors and relations of care.
Zero Plus Anything Is a World
Four less one is three. Three less two is one. One less three is what, is who, remains. The first cell that learned to divide learned to subtract. Recipe: add salt to hunger. Recipe: add time to trees. Zero plus anything is a world. This one and no other, unhidden, by each breath changed. Recipe: add death to life. Recipe: love without swerve what this will bring. Sister, father, mother, husband, daughter. Like a cello forgiving one note as it goes, then another.
from The Beauty (Knopf, 2015)
I knew, sitting here tonight, that I wanted to write about a Jane Hirshfield poem. And now, as I sit here tonight, I am currently sitting in the aftermath of an hour spent trying to choose which one.
My first thought was maybe Hirshfield’s “My Life Was the Size of My Life,” with these opening, so ordinary lines:
My life was the size of my life. Its rooms were room-sized, its soul was the size of a soul.
And then there’s how it ends, playfully, with a hint of — dare I say sexy? — fun:
I was hungry, then, and my life, my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep our hands off our clothes on our tongues from
There was also one of my favorite titled poems, “Day Beginning with Seeing the International Space Station and a Full Moon Over the Gulf of Mexico and All Its Invisible Fishes,” a Hirshfield poem full of conditionals, of what is and what might have been, of our collective fragility and happenstance. It ends:
If the unbearable were not weightless we might yet buckle under the grief of what hasn’t changed yet. Across the world a man pulls a woman from the water from which the leapt-from overfilled boat has entirely vanished. From the water pulls one child, another. Both are living and both will continue to live. This did not have to happen. No part of this had to happen.
And then, finally, I thought about “Vinegar and Oil,” the entirety of which is below. I sometimes remember that standalone line in the midst of the few good moments.
Wrong solitude vinegars the soul, right solitude oils it. How fragile we are, between the few good moments. Coming and going unfinished, puzzled by fate, like the half-carved relief of a fallen donkey, above a church door in Finland.
I wanted to write about Jane Hirshfield because reading her poems has the effect of real warmth. And I’m in need of that warmth lately, because — though I got my second Covid booster last Friday — I tested positive for Covid earlier this week, and have been nursing myself back to some semblance of health over these past days. And they have been pretty terrible days — I’ve not felt this sick in a long, long time — days that make me think about how awful and gruesome this sickness must have felt in the early days of non-vaccination. How awful and gruesome it still is, regardless.
And so, I turn to Hirshfield because the existential curiosity and the vast, open stillness at the heart of her work is such a balm to me. It has been from the moment I first read her, and it still is. Her work does this wildly graceful thing where it weaves between small moments of attention and wide-open moments of universality. You notice it in that poem above — “Vinegar and Oil,” how it begins with this trippy image of the specific and the universal tied together, like a woven loaf of bread. How can the soul be vinegar-ed? How can solitude be a kind of oil? And yet. Hirshfield then offers one of those stunning and universal truths — How fragile we are, between the few good moments — before finally ending with an image to mold that universality into something seen and noticed. A half-carved relief. A fallen donkey. A church door in Finland.
I find Hirshfield’s work so powerful in this regard. It has the effect of walking outside and getting caught in a light rain, only to look up and see, through an apartment’s yellow-lit window, two people holding each other, or someone standing over a steaming pot. This feeling of being in the world and out of it at the same time, of being reminded of the sensation of life and, at the same time, remembering that we share such sensation with others.
Today’s poem is no different. There is such a generosity to it — beginning from the title, which is a poem in and of itself. And then, each short, almost staccato little line or stanza is like a little burst of insight. I remember staring at the following stanza, trying to figure it out:
One less three is what, is who, remains.
I didn’t understand how the number one could be less three. And then I realized — a sudden illumination — that one person can lose three others. It was that word who placed in there that reminded me that this poem was about us. About you and me. And that people lose others all the time. That it might not make sense — the loss, or how much we go through — but that it happens. And that we remain in the wake of it.
And that’s how I feel while reading this poem. I feel open to a kind of illuminating generosity. I notice it here:
Zero plus anything is a world. This one and no other, unhidden, by each breath changed.
By this point, Hirshfield has convinced me, so that, when she restates the title, it has this effect of operating in service of something larger. It’s as if, in hearing the title’s phrase again, I hear it anew, and I look up from the poem and see the world with that new language as a frame — nothing entirely independent, everything existing as a result of the generosity of addition. This idea of operating in service of something larger is a way of describing so much of Hirshfield’s work. Just as the lines above state, Hirshfield’s work un-hides itself from the world. It steps out of the darkness and into the light of it. It reminds me, often and often and often, to do the same. To think of a tree as something that was once zero, and then, because of the anything of time, has become itself, and will become more. Will almost certainly outlast me, even though I am, with each breath, changing and being changed.
And so, even if it sounds a little trite or cliche, well, it’s still true: I needed that reminder, that illumination. And I need it still. In the same way that I’d like to carry these final lines with me:
Like a cello forgiving one note as it goes, then another.
What a beautiful way to reimagine music — each note an act of forgiveness for all that came before it. And maybe that, too, is a way of thinking about life. Each breath an act of forgiveness for all that occurred in all the breaths before. That — simply by being alive — we are ourselves living testaments of forgiveness. Because we choose to be here, still.
I’ve been thinking about relations of care and forgiveness and kindness a lot lately. Mostly because I’ve been sitting in this same chair for countless hours over the past few days. And also because, when I tested positive for Covid, my first reaction was one of shame. I felt deeply, deeply ashamed. I think it was because I thought immediately of care, and how I would need it. And I thought of weakness, and how I felt it. And I thought of inconvenience, and how I would cause it. That morning, I wrote up all my lesson plans and sent them to the teachers who had to cover for me. I used a bunch of exclamation points in my emails to indicate that I was sorry. I felt bad. I still do.
I know I shouldn’t feel bad, that part of being a human means understanding that we are bound up in relations of care with one another, relations that might mean we have to carry a little more weight one day than in the past. But lately — and by lately, I mean in this contemporary moment — that care seems a tenuous, fragile thing. A strained rope still straining.
Earlier this week, I finished reading David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs (thus completing, I think, my dive into his oeuvre over the past few years). I admire Graeber’s work for a similar reason as Hirshfield’s, though they might not seem comparable. But Graeber, for how incisive and sometimes caustic he can be, treats the world itself — and the relations of humans within it — with a great deal of love, and heart. Toward the end of Bullshit Jobs, he talks about “caring labor.” He uses an example of subway workers going on strike and how they were deemed replaceable, until it was pointed out how much those workers actually do that goes unrecognized. Offer directions. Hold doors. Assist the elderly. Graeber writes:
What tube workers actually do, then, is something much closer to what feminists have termed “caring labor.” It has more in common with a nurses’s work than a bricklayer’s. It’s just that, in the same way as women’s unpaid caring labor is made to disappear from our accounts of “the economy,” so are the caring aspects of other working-class jobs made to disappear as well.
Later, Graeber expands on this, saying all labor can be seen as caring labor:
By this token, as many feminist economists have pointed out, all labor can be seen as caring labor, since—to turn to an example from the beginning of the chapter—even if one builds a bridge, it’s ultimately because one cares about people who might wish to cross the river.
That aspect of care has been largely forgotten in our world. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but rather that it goes widely unrecognized, and widely unvalued. And I think, in part, that’s why I felt shame upon my diagnosis. For all that I talk about generosity, I think I often pride myself on my sufficiency. I like my ability to care for myself, but this doesn’t translate to liking being cared for. When I underwent surgery over a year ago, and couldn’t manage, in the first weeks after, the smallest things — standing on my own, walking without assistance — I sometimes grew frustrated at my fiancee’s attempts to care for me. Which also meant I was frustrated at myself. Frustrated for needing care. I didn’t like being reminded that my sufficiency was gone. That I was fragile, and would always be.
This lack of care for care itself is pervasive in our everyday. It’s there even in my job as a teacher, which is a job that is almost certainly viewed as part of the caring economy. And yet, when I think about how schools and classrooms are evaluated, I think of the opposite of care. I think of distance and remove. I think of test scores and data. Though my work is largely work of care, the fundamental acts of care that make up my daily life are not what are seen or appreciated. The results on the other end of that care are what are. There is no test score that communicates if a student feels safe enough to be challenged, or seen enough to feel valued. Sure, some might say, but perhaps a student might perform better on a test if this is the case. To that hypothetical person, I’d say that they are missing the point. The point is that we shouldn’t have to reduce people to results that are so far removed from the human experience. The point is that it should be enough to feel safe enough to be challenged, seen enough to feel valued.
This is why, I think, I’ve turned to this poem in the midst of the past few days. Zero plus anything is a world. The title alone reminds me of the opposite of independence. It reminds me of our fragile and fleeting dependence. The worst part of this sickness has not been the headaches or the awful sore throat that made my mouth feel like it had turned to craggy asphalt baking under a Death Valley sun, no. The worst part has been the solitude at the heart of it, the remove. I forget sometimes that the beauty of life is that we are among and amidst each other, not apart.
It has been so long since whatever first initial Covid diagnosis began the vast, ongoing struggle of this pandemic. And I think that I, like so many, hoped and wondered if we would collectively move toward something more generous as a result of all of this. More and more, though, I feel attuned to the ways in which we have not. So much of how we shop and scroll and live — in curated isolation, even when we are near people — feels in service of the idea that is the opposite of the title of today’s poem. The idea that we are each our own world, not that we are worlds by relation. I’d like to believe the latter. That part of being human involves making and remaking the world relationally, through the care we receive and the care that we give. That we are given, and we offer, and that we give again. And in that simple equation performed over and over again: a world.
And then I’d like to believe, as Jane Hirshfield writes in her poem, “I wanted to be surprised,” that we can be gracious with one another in that over and over again performing:
What should not have been so surprising: my error after error, recognized when appearing on the faces of others. What did not surprise enough: my daily expectation that anything would continue, and then that so much did continue, when so much did not.
Beautiful, right? It’s just that, well, I can’t stop thinking about how, when you think of music as an ongoing act of forgiveness, rather than something that just happens out of thin air, it turns the act of music into an act of care. Which it is. Which it has to be. And if you think of the world engaged in that same ongoing act, it becomes, too, a world of care. I don’t like when the mechanisms of the world make it easy for us to forget how dependent we are on other people. I don’t like it because, as nice as it has felt for me to be sufficient, it has always, and will always, feel better to be loved. Even, and especially if, that love challenges me to care. As Denis Johnson wrote: “It was love that sent me on the journey, love that called me home.” That’s what I want to think about as I sit here looking out the window, grateful to be well enough to miss the world, grateful that I will hopefully only miss the world for a little while longer.
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