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March 7, 2003


Book Review

Jack Hirschman, Front Lines: Selected Poems, 1952 - 2001
San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002

By Don Paul

To observe the development of a strong, ardent, creative personality is always compelling. How will he or she turn out? What turns will his or her expression take? How will he or she resolve the amalgam of conflicts and desires that animates any intense lifetime of personal creation?

Jack Hirschman's selection of poems over a 49-year period, Front Lines, published by City Lights in late 2002, lets us discover and enjoy his development.

We can see that Jack wanted to be a righteous warrior early on. Still a teenager, not yet out of New York City, before the Cuban and Algerian Revolutions, he wrote “Guerrillas” in 1952: In the mountain caves they sleep:/ The Stubborn Men./ Without the quench of water,/ Without the warmth of woman or child./ Bedpost of bayonet,/ Pillow of steel.

We can also see, early on, that Jack insists whole truth must have a mystic element. We can see that his open-hearted engagement with subject, his Romantic surrender to feeling through language and music, can tend to tilt and tip and trick and to overstep its grounding in authenticity. His homages to Allen Ginsberg (1957) and to the burnt-at-the-stake philosopher Giordano Bruno (1960) contain lines of fine insight and lyricism, but might speak more if they didn’t try to tell so much.

We see early on that Jack is an advocate of the dithyramb, the Dionsyian song/dance that values passionate sincerity as primary virtue, but we also see that he has great care for exact detail, skill in many forms, a tremendous range of appreciations (W.C. Fields, Dylan Thomas, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Hemingway, Ray Charles, and Johann Sebastian Bach are some through 1967), and the courage and sensitivity to render moments of uplifting or heart-tearing love with his first wife, Ruth, in simple, elemental lines.

We can see that this Jack is unmistakably a poet.

We trace him into the late 1960s and middle 1970s and we wait, really, for this poet’s voice to find its fulfilling identity. The decade 1965-75 is least represented in Jack’s selection and holds the stretch of poems that I find to be least sure. They’re more about the past and abstractions and they’re more imitative of passing fashions. They give off the sense of desperate effort to regather an unraveling center.

Jack then settles in North Beach and commits to regular, communist activism. He’ll be a poor poet ¾ he’d lost his post at UCLA in 1966 for helping students resist induction into the Vietnam War ¾ but one free and devoted. Here the poetry becomes both more of everyday experience and magical transmutation. From “A Village Poem” onward there’s some fantastically good stuff. It’s of robust verbs and nouns, non-linear connections, illuminating visions, and profound sentiments. Check out these passages.

From “Running Poem”: I want to ride the prairie of your eyelids/ like a pinto of kiss/ and beat on the drum of a river/ till its time gives way/ and run like a small child with a squirrel for a head/ ...

From “Spirals”: Onward and upward./ the smoke from the chimneys/ spirals/ spirals even today./ A generation and more/ of clouds/ made of Communists, Catholics/ Jews, Gypsies, Witnesses,/ Gays./ Jet planes fly through/ them. They/ are all over the world/ ...

From “This Neruda Earth”: Sitting against a treetrunk in Dolores Park/ amid the Chilean solidarity gathering,/ my eyes beheld three tiny daisies/ in the grass, their little pollen hearts/ attacked by flies. Nearby, yellowjackets/ were flying over a jungle of blades/ of grass and brilliantly green-backed/ horseflies were making merry on a flute of dogshit./ ...

From “The Unnameable”: ... /O simple sleep of the sitar/ of body./ I play you with my eyelashes/ the way the feelers/ of a cockroach/ writes its brown verse/ to a breadcrumb in the pantry./ ...

From “Home”: ... /O murderous system of munitions and inhuman rights/ that has plundered our pockets and dignity/ O enterprise of crimes that calls us criminals/ terrorism that cries we are fearful,/ greed that evicts us from the places we ourselves have built,/ ...

From “The Love Poem” : Bliss of all blisses/ lightly you do declare/ intimacy by putting your/ lips right here./... / there is a language called/ Soul, a tongue that is/ the kiss that’s the bliss/ of all blisses. Untranslatable.

From “The Twin Towers Arcane” : .../The rule of nothingness/ is complete now/ God murdered on one hand./ God suicided on the other./ The triumph of fascism,/ We’re ordered to live out/ our non-violent lives/ buying and selling/ and praying to violence/ despite ourselves/ because there’s nothing else,/ nothing’s changed,/it’s only standing more revealed.

You see? You feel him? From just the passages above you may get how Jack has done poetry’s job ¾ the unspoken articulated, the disparate bridged, the beautiful and monstrous revealed, the mysterious and tender elicited ¾ with great earnestness, strength and charm and grace, his unfinished lifetime’s long.


Don Paul is the name on a dozen or more books and CDs, including the books of poems AmeriModern, Pulsing, and Flares and the albums Love Is The Main Flame, Flowers Smell Of Gasoline, and Punkinhead (www.wireonfire/com/donpaul). His latest book is " '9/11' " - Facing Our Fascist State.

On Friday, March 7, 5:00 - 8:00 pm, Supervisor Matt Gonzalez hosts an art opening to present paintings by Jack Hirschman in Room 282, City Hall. The paintings will be on display there for the following month.