When critics speak fondly of a movie’s cinematography, it might indicate a film that’s technically accomplished but otherwise unmemorable. Likewise, as the saying goes, if you can judge a book by its cover, than something may well be wrong. Poet Jane Hirshfield’s latest collection, The Beauty, has qualities that are similarly skin-deep. It may look like its title, but it lacks the content to make it something more.

Having published eight books of poetry in a 30-plus year career, Hirshfield is clearly a skilled and competent lyricist. Throughout her career she has focused on nature, the domestic, the soul of the world and the self. Her work is punctuated by careful imagery and an attention to fine details found throughout the landscape she moves through.

The Beauty continues this preoccupation; giving us poems full of things and feelings. In these poems, words are spun around objects, and her craft for examining the thingness of things and the selfness of the self becomes evident.

What most defines this book, and what would probably be a good way to define her work in general, is the quietness of her poems. She explores life as it is, objects as they are and the connection between the more esoteric and the more tangible. But all her poems feel silent—or intentionally quiet. They are soft and obtuse and make skillful use of line breaks. Her language feels common yet mystical; at once inviting and at the same time purposefully disorienting. “A Cottony Fate” delivers this aesthetic masterfully:

Long ago, someone
told me: avoid or.

It troubles the mind
as a held-out piece of meat disturbs a dog.

Now I too am sixty.
There was no other life.

The poems undulate between these small sketches and longer sweeping works that are more grounded. All over the book there is a feeling of near revelation, the sense that on the next page all will become evident and the book will give way to a waterfall of exposition, or at the very least deliver to us a moment of unstoppable beauty and knowledge.

Two longer poems are structured in multiple parts, “Twelve Pebbles” and “Works & Loves.” These become more entrancing yet obscure with each reading. Indeed, many of the poems in The Beauty become more mystical the more you read them, slowly becoming incantations to something unknown.

But ultimately this collection never delivers that gut wrenching, cathartic truth-telling moment that makes you slam the book down in elation or disgust—both acceptable reactions to hard-hitting, truth-seeking poetry. Maybe it depends what you’re looking for in poetry. If you’re looking for inspiration to live the everyday, or to see beautiful, intriguing images created by a skilled lyricist, then The Beauty is a decent place to begin. However, if you’ve come to have your head blown off in ecstatic joy and disbelief that words could be this powerful, or political or matter this much, you may want to wait for something else.

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