Commentary on Jane Hirshfield's poem Sonoma Fire

Commentary by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

One never knows when disaster will strike, but when it does, it is often difficult for us to understand the impact unless we are the ones who are directly affected, unless it is our house that floods or is swept by a fire.

This week’s short poem is from one of this country’s most beloved poets, Jane Hirshfield, who lives in Marin County. In it, Hirshfield writes about watching Sonoma County from afar during the summer of 2008 when 1,781 fires (mostly caused by lightning strikes) burned uncontrollably up and down California. At the time, Marin remained safe and free of fire, and the poem observes what it is like to see and smell the beauty of the fire from a distance without the consequence of the fire’s destruction.

The poem explores how our experience of a thing is influenced by where we stand looking at it. From afar, whether from distance or from the passage of time, a tragic event can look absolutely beautiful. How fire from above looks like a necklace of red rubies sewn into the dark, or how the moon, ambered in smoke, simmers on the horizon.

What this poem admits is that when we see beauty in tragedies observed from a distance, when we are drawn to help strangers recover from a terrible loss, it is because at some level we are relived that we are not the ones suffering in the heart of the fire.


Sonoma Fire
By Jane Hirshfield

Large moon the deep orange of embers.
Also the scent.
The griefs of others — beautiful at a distance.

Originally published in Poetry (December 2010).

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is Sonoma County’s 2016 Poet Laureate.