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Fall 2003

Poe: An Assay (I)

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In “The Gold Bug,” the overt finding of the treasure
is tossed out mid-tale like a bone to a waiting dog.
His stories were not intended for the canine heart that howls inside us,
though he fed it the tidbits it needed to stay near.

What could simply be seen, named, described was not his interest.
Half-close your eyes, he advised, to double the world.
The process of a discovery accomplished was his interest,
its after-savoring his appetite and his pleasure.

While he wrote, the peppered moths
of industrial London were growing darker with an internalized protective soot.

While he wrote, the last illegal slave ships were still coming in.

In his 150-year-old prose there is only one word you might recognize as archaic.

Omission his characteristic gesture;
stepping into the thought that thought cannot enter
his characteristic desire.

While he wrote, the ongoing, quiet famine of laborers paid below costs of housing and food.

While he wrote, the ongoing, unquiet emptying of the Plains.

These things happened under the culture’s floorboards and behind its walls.
These things happened beneath the lids of half-closed eyes.

It is not precisely true that they are absent, though it is true they do not appear.

Whether they were for him
embraced or subsumed in his offered terrors cannot be known.

While he wrote, Turgenev, Goethe,
and this lithe-legged haiku of Issa from the other side of the world:

do not worry.
I keep house casually.

In Poe the worry is like the long-cooled lead in Baltimore house-glass, settled and clear.

—Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield’s book, Given Sugar, Given Salt, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A translated volume of her selected poems appeared in Poland in 2002, with a foreward by Czeslaw Milosz.


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