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Poem of the week: It Was As If a Ladder by Jane Hirshfield | Books

It was like a ladder

It was as if
a ladder,

and every rung,
real for yourself,
round or latte,
narrow or wide,
Rope or metal –

and when you ascended
real for yourself,
the rungs directly above it
you tight
right under you, tight.

Scent of peeled orange
mixed with gasoline,
Sound of hammering.

Further down,
The rungs disappeared one by one.

Further up,
the rungs one by one
disappeared.

And the lines of the side rails
disappeared as in
a drawing by Brunelleschi.

Scent of peeled orange
and gasoline,
Sound of hammering.

Grasp now, night dog, your barking:

that ladder in the air
invented by others, received by others.

The American poet, translator and essayist Jane Hirshfield deals in this strange and mysterious story with the ecological crisis and its effects. It was like a ladder was from their latest collection, Ledger, released in the UK this year by Bloodaxe Books.

Hirshfield’s writing is always sensual and concentrated: At the same time, her Zen-influenced deep immersion into things she sees and perceives is often unsettled by another philosophical question. This leads to new knowledge, but not necessarily an easy solution.

It was as if a leader neither asked nor answered her tough, unspoken questions. Like the ladder themselves, the story and the grammar on which it is based are easily negated. Gradually simple objects and clear sensory impressions are translated into the surreality of the nightmare.

The title promises a security that grammar does not offer. Surely there will be some more explanatory clauses regarding the picture that the ladder must have suggested as a comparison – “as if a ladder were leaning against the wall …” etc. But no. Carefully divided into two lines, the statement is self-contained: “It was as if / a ladder, // and every rung was real for itself …” So the ladder seems to be just a solid piece of hardware. The image begins to float and despite a strong, clear description and a steady rhythm that may lead us to believe in the ladder and ascent, we are still clearly in the dangerous world of “as if”.

An impressive series of sensory impressions interrupts the progress: “Scent of peeled orange / mixed with gasoline / sound of hammers.” Oranges and gasoline smell soothing and, mixed, could suggest vacation and travel, but perhaps they have connotations of environmental damage. This haiku-like tercet is followed by two small, threatening stanzas. They tell us that the rungs of the ladder above and below the climber have disappeared. Exactly and without melodrama, the narrator adds that the side rails have also disappeared “like in a drawing by Brunelleschi”.

Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi found that parallel lines converge at a single point in the distance from a fixed angle. However, the poem does not say that this happens to the ladder’s side rails, but rather that they turn into mere lines in an architectural sketch. There may have been a building and a ladder, but there is nothing. This seems to sound like accusations against humanity. There is no building, no civilization, no ascent.

The stanza “haiku” repeats itself to haunt us with our failure to do so. This time the hammers seem to ring sharper. There isn’t a building, but it’s the sound of it. Or is the sound of demolition?

“Grab hold of your bark now, night dog.” The sudden imperative carries a mysterious power. Who is the night dog? Perhaps it represents the last animal reality that humans still have. Or maybe this “dog” no longer has anything to do with the human world. How can the sound you make be captured? Maybe through repetition and volume. There is no reassurance, however, and the night dog appears to remain stranded on the lost ladder, which has been “invented” and “received by others” all along. In this way, the nightmarish helplessness of the climber, who may or may not be the night dog, is exposed. The ladder becomes a monolithic power structure, without taking into account those swaying on its disappeared rungs.

It was like a ladder was one of the more somber poems in Ledger, but it’s an enormous symbolic narrative that brings surrealist techniques to imagery and grammar in a thoroughly contemporary way. The Tower of Babel is no more relevant to our time than Hirshfield’s terrifying yet extremely beautiful “ladder in the air”.

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