At the Great Door of Morning: Selected Poems and Translations by Robert Hedlin
Copper Canyon, 2017
Paperback, 220 pages, $18.00
Of all the books of poetry I’ve read this year—and I’ve read quite a large number—Robert Hedin’s At The Great Door of Morning: Selected Poems and Translations has pulled me most deeply into the depths of feeling, seeing, and being that I hope to discover in poetry. Each poem is a genuine experience, a small moment of grace, and the book as a whole is a series of revelations. Once I started reading At the Great Door, I couldn’t put the book down—and yet it is a book to savor. Its pleasures have renewed and reinvigorated my own faith in the power of poetry to matter deeply to us, to help us live by restoring us to wonder in this clamorous, narcissistic, cliché-ridden time. It is a book to be kept on that short shelf of favorites.
At the Great Door of Morning is divided into six sections, the first and last two comprised of Hedin’s own poems and the middle three of his translations of the Norwegian poets Rolf Jacobsen, Olav Hauge, and Dag Straumsvag. As masterful as the translations are, it is Hedin’s own poems that really sing. He is a master of clarity and of the kind of image that revitalizes the actual world—makes us look at an ordinary object or action with fresh eyes—as when, in a poem about teaching his sons to row, he shows the act of rowing as “keeping/the river moving,” making suddenly vivid what would otherwise be a common action barely worthy of our attention. In another poem he shows us owls that “glide off the thin/Wrists of the night.” These perfectly-observed/masterfully created moments of imagistic transformation achieve Pound’s goal of “making it new,” but they don’t just revitalize the art of poetry; in fact, they make new the actual world, showing us ordinary things in authentically fresh ways. And this is what Hedin does over and over here: makes the mundane miraculous again, refreshing our perceptions and thus our lives. We might even say that Hedin is a visionary poet, though a quiet and personally modest one. Reading these poems, we respond not to the poet’s brilliance (which is manifest) but to the world he shows us: This book shows little of Hedin’s autobiography or personal life. What it does show, in deep and trembling ways, is a vision and an immersion in the world of things and mind, the world of being and contemplation. One leaves Hedin’s poems with reinvigorated eyes. I was reminded of the experience of leaving an art museum after a particularly strong show of paintings—of walking around seeing the world through the lens of those paintings for a while. Hedin’s best poems have that effect on my sensibility: they refresh and reawaken my everyday world.
There is an ancient quality of folk-tale magic in many of Hedin’s best poems, a charmed and dreamlike quality of “seeing into the life of things,” which results from careful, lifelong craft and attention to clarity of detail. These poems remind us of how ancient the art of poetry is, how deeply a good poem can plumb:
This must be where the ravens turn to geese,
The weasels to wolves, where the rabbits turn to owls…
Where hunters have forgotten their trails and sunk out of sight…
Glistening with the bones of animals and trappers,
Eggs that are cold and turning to stones…
(“The Snow Country”)
It seems to me that the great majority of contemporary poems, even the best of them, are filled with clamor and self-regard. These qualities may be reflective of our time and thus fitting attitudes for our poetry. Sometimes it seems though that idiosyncrasy is a stand-in for originality, mere oddness a stand-in for genuine freshness. This observation is not meant to bemoan the state of our poetry, which is vibrant and challenging and forging new ground. But it is to point out one of Robert Hedin’s greatest strengths, and perhaps what moves and refreshes me most deeply in his work: the modesty that infuses every aspect of his art, a modesty informed of deep craft, genuine feeling, and transformative seeing. This is a modesty born of respect for the millennia-long art of poetry and the poets who have practiced before him. It is equally a modesty born of respect for the world of living creatures and energies with whom we live our lives, and a respect for the clarity of language. It is the grounded and self-assured modesty of a master:
Goddard Hot Springs
When you lie in these sweating streams
You are lying in the breath of your ancestors,
The old pioneers who sat here in these pools
Mapping trails to the mother lode.
You feel a fog drift through your body,
A voice that is strangely familiar
And still has stories to tell.
A poem like this, with its understated, carefully-modulated revelations, reminds us again that poetry, true poetry, needs to be savored—read slowly, listened to—then read again. Without such reading, the depths this poem plumbs might be missed or skated over. Hedin trusts his reader to breathe with his poem, to listen carefully for its news and subtle revelation.
Hedin’s best poems remind us that to read a poem, we must breathe with the breath of the poet who made it, thus reanimating it with our own breath-stuff.
Hedin’s book ends with a final “chapter” he calls “Field Notes,” a compendium of insights and assertions about the art of poetry, all of them wise, useful, and memorably written. Among them, this statement, which might stand as a kind of motto for all of Hedin’s work:
A good poem breaks through the numbing, stultifying voice of our mass
culture to successfully articulate, in all its breadth and meaning, a land-
scape of conviction, a deeper circuitry that helps give life its necessary
shape and substance.
Poetry is, in many ways, a sustained longing for home and reconciliation,
the inseparability of self and object, self and other.
Or, better yet, turning again to one of Hedin’s poems:
The Tlingit on this island tell a story about fog.
They say in its belly
The spirits of the drowned are turned into otters,
That on cold nights when the lowlands
Smolder with steam
The loon builds its nest in their voices.
As deeply as I admire this book, I do wish that Hedin’s modesty had not prevented him from including a greater number of his own poems and (perhaps) fewer of his translations. As strong as they are, the translations do not strike me as quite as linguistically or imigistically fresh as Hedin’s own work. Though the three poets translated here are themselves masters of imagery and concision, and though it is clear that they all have influenced him, still I yearned for Hedin’s own language, his singular vision. Perhaps I am merely quibbling. Perhaps it is simply that I would have liked a longer book. What’s here is a treasure, a genuine contribution to American poetry and a gift to all who read it.