“February 29,” a leap day poem by Jane Hirshfield


Leap days are special by their very nature, falling only every four years, and now the day has its own poem, thanks to Jane Hirshfield.

Hirshfield, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets who lives in Marin County, wrote “February 29” on Feb. 29, 2012, to eulogize a friend.

“I had, months before,” she wrote, “brought her the present of a traditional bamboo-slat painted reproduction of a famous Chinese painting. She had commented, with her customary inhabitance of all things from the inside, how hard it is to paint a cow so well from the front. Her death was unexpected, and a letter from her I had not wanted to put away was still out on my kitchen table. My year’s extra day circled around it.”

Hirshfield’s poems “illumine the quotidian life of objects,” wrote Chronicle poetry critic Diana Whitney in her review of “The Beauty” (2015), in which “February 29” was published. “She writes short poems with short lines, alternately tiny and vast, offering Zen koans and domestic scenes transfigured by the light of thought.”

This attention to everyday details is evident in “February 29,” whose lines reference “a second cup of black coffee … a mailed-back package … the space between a door and its frame when one room is lit and another is not.”

In a 2015 interview with The Chronicle, Hirshfield said, “Evolution tells us how to survive; art tells us how it’s possible still to live even while knowing that we and all we love will someday vanish. It says there’s beauty even in grief, freedom even inside the strictures of form and of life. What’s liberating isn’t what’s simplest; it’s the ability to include more and more shadows, colors and possibilities inside any moment’s meeting of self and world.”

Here is “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.