|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?
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
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.
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
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
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.