Jane Hirshfield’s “Those Who Cannot Act”

Bystanders watch the First Lady’s motorcade in Kyoto. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

This poem is by one of my favorite poets, Jane Hirshfield. It was republished in a recent 2017 anthology of poetry about gun violence entitled Bullets Into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. I discovered it while my junior students were writing argumentative essays about gun violence in the United States and thinking about whether or not we should support stricter federal gun control legislation. The poems raise important questions and bear witness to the victims and survivors of gun violence in a myriad of ways.

Even the bystanders vanish…

The best protest poems in the anthology, like this one, don’t really pick a side in the gun control/gun rights battle, but instead show us something we might have missed—a detail, a life not our own, or even an entirely new way of looking at what we see and hear about everyday—that helps us see the more complex picture. Like all protest poetry, these pieces require us to face issues head-on and demand a response. I particularly love the second stanza of this poem, with its “banished” sister and nameless dog who both suffer despite their inability to change their situation. Vanishing, too, according to Hirshfield, is a form of suffering.

Hirshfield is a Zen Buddhist, and this poem nods to Japanese forms with its spare language, large gaps in meaning, and especially its meditative nature. The last line is meant to throw you deliberately off-balance, leaving you to ask “While what?” of the vanishing bystanders. It’s a poem that arrests you in your tracks, forces you to imagine what our world would look like if we weren’t there to witness it, or take action to save it. It’s a poem I plan to share with my students and have them write about. What comes after the “while” in the final line? What would you write?

Those Who Cannot Act

“Those who act will suffer,
suffer into truth”—
What Aeschylus omitted:
those who cannot act will suffer too.

The sister banished into exile.
The unnamed dog
soon killed.

Even the bystanders vanish,
one by one,
peripheral, in pain unnoticed while

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