Pushcart XL: Jane Hirshfield, “A Cottony Fate” (poem) from The Paris Review, #209

Art by Julia Bereciartu

Art by Julia Bereciartu

 

Long ago, someone
told me: avoid or.
 
It troubles the mind
as a held-out piece of meat disturbs a dog.

~~ Complete poem available online at Harpers

In her Rumpus interview with Rebecca Olson, Hirshfield reveals that the advice to “avoid or“, offered by Ted Weiss, referred to poetic construction. This poem, as she notes, transplants the poetic advice to life as lived.

I’ve always had the sense that the word avoid was less emphatic than don’t. We might avoid things we find unpleasant (for me, raw onions or Westerns) but make occasional exceptions if the reward is high enough (I’m very hungry and that chicken salad with Vidalias looks amazing) or simply to see if our tastes have changed (nope, not even Star Trek could make a Western I could sit through for 47 minutes). But if I’m highly allergic to shellfish, you can bet I’m not going anywhere near them, and boxing is a big don’t for me.

My sense of the word appears to be idiosyncratic, however; most people think of it as a prohibition. In that case, I have very mixed feelings about the dictum in both spheres. I’m not sure if Weiss was referring to the use of a word in the final draft, or to an attitude during composition, but I’ve been thinking about that for days now: while I can’t come up with an example, a line something like “it’s a metaphor-1 or a metaphor-2” seems very familiar, either with contrasting metaphors to show multiple senses of an event, or with a progression to deepen a single sense. I don’t see why either should be prohibited.

In the broader sense, we are our choices. To have an open field, with the option of going left or right or up or down, is the foundation of freedom; without choice, we’re hamsters on a treadmill. And yet, choices can paralyze us. Psychologists are convinced that when we face too many good outcomes, we freeze and end up with nothing. I’ve mentioned the Bell Jar scene of Esther Greenwood’s fig tree dream before; it’s a good example. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t, have choices.

But Hirshfield is right: as of now, “there was no other life.” I did what I did. Some of it, I’m not proud of. Some of those decisions were life-saving; others were highly destructive. I don’t have those decisions to make any more, and it’s time to live with the consequences. And by the way, tomorrow I will have to live with the consequences for today’s decisions.

I’m uncertain about the title. Is the cottony fate the present uncertainty of how we will look back on our decisions, years hence? Or is it the comfort of swaddling that abandonment of the path of “what might have been” for acceptance brings?

My decision-making technique, as I’ve grown older, has evolved from benefits and risks to what I call the Morley Safer test (no one under 60 will understand that reference, but so what). A year, five, ten years from now, when Morley Safer interviews me on 60 Minutes, how will I feel about the decision? Can I honestly say I did what seemed to be the right thing? That’s what I get in the last line of the poem.

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