Man on a Fire Escape
He couldn’t remember what propelled him
out of the bedroom window onto the fire escape
of his fifth-floor walkup on the river,
so that he could see, as if for the first time,
sunset settling down on the dazed cityscape
and tugboats pulling barges up the river.
There were barred windows glaring at him
from the other side of the street
while the sun deepened into a smoky flare
that scalded the clouds gold-vermilion.
It was just an ordinary autumn twilight—
the kind he had witnessed often before—
but then the day brightened almost unnaturally
into a rusting, burnished, purplish red haze
and everything burst into flame:
the factories pouring smoke into the sky,
the trees and shrubs, the shadows
of pedestrians singed and rushing home …
There were storefronts going blind and cars
burning on the parkway and steel girders
collapsing into the polluted waves.
Even the latticed fretwork of stairs
where he was standing, even the first stars
climbing out of their sunlit graves
were branded and lifted up, consumed by fire.
It was like watching the start of Armageddon,
like seeing his mother dipped in flame …
And then he closed his eyes and it was over.
Just like that. When he opened them again
the world had reassembled beyond harm.
So where had he crossed to? Nowhere.
And what had he seen? Nothing. No foghorns
called out to each other, as if in a dream,
and no moon rose over the dark river
like a warning—icy, long-forgotten—
while he turned back to an empty room.
“Notable book of the year, 1994”
— The New York Times Book Review
“With Earthly Measures, Edward Hirsch breaks through the ring of fire and captures his Muse. The voice is now uncannily his own; uncanny because we believe we have heard it before, yet the accents are unearthly and utterly fresh. Like his poem on Art Pepper, this voice also hears the chords of Stevens and Celan, but knows that ‘playing solo means going on alone, improvising.’”
— Harold Bloom
“Edward Hirsch is one of the finest poets we have! He has wonderful gifts to offer us: a strong, touching narrative voice; an alert, mindful eye; the moral energy that informs his manner of writing and his choice of subjects; a desire to reach his readers, bring them into the world he observes, creates.”
— Robert Coles
“I can’t think of any contemporary whose poems have such an unfeigned urgency of feeling. At the same time, Hirsch’s poems have a considered richness in them, and greatly repay rereading.”
— Richard Wilbur