Lexicon Valley

Jane Hirshfield Wrote the Perfect Poem for Leap Day

Jane Hirshfield, a poet and translator known for her clean lines and elegant, conversational style, published her newest collection, The Beauty, just last year. Longlisted for the National Book Award, The Beauty joins Come, Thief (2011), After (2006), and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001) in a quietly insightful bibliography, one that the Poetry Foundation says “[marries] philosophical meditation with domestic observation.”

Hirshfield, who belonged to Princeton University’s first graduating class to include women, spent eight years studying at the San Francisco Zen Center, where she homed in on the themes that would later define her work: consciousness, attention, and “the vicissitudes of perception.” In “February 29,” she captures how something extra, unexpectedly introduced into your life, can seem to take your measure, like “the painting’s fifth cow, / who looks out directly, / straight toward you.”


The poem’s spare, unassuming images (someone stumbling after he’s had too much to drink, a cracked door) gracefully bear the weight of abstract ideas. Hirshfield compares the leap day to a small consolation, a little more time with someone you’ve lost: “a letter re-readable after its writer has died.” (Notice how gently her two rooms, illuminated and dark, stand in for life and death.) Throughout, the poet underscores the sweetness of this small cosmic excess, unnecessary, unremarkable, but inspirited in the same way a space feels inspirited by light, or by a person passing through it.

The full text of “February 29” is below.

“February 29”

An extra day—

Like the painting’s fifth cow,
who looks out directly,
straight toward you,
from inside her black and white spots.


An extra day—

Accidental, surely:
the made calendar stumbling over the real
as a drunk trips over a threshold
too low to see.

An extra day—

With a second cup of black coffee.
A friendly but businesslike phone call.
A mailed-back package.
Some extra work, but not too much—
just one day’s worth, exactly.

An extra day—

Not unlike the space
between a door and its frame
when one room is lit and another is not,
and one changes into the other
as a woman exchanges a scarf.

An extra day—

Extraordinarily like any other.
And still
there is some generosity to it,
like a letter re-readable after its writer has died.

Excerpted from The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield. Copyright © 2015 by Jane Hirshfield. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.