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Analysis of Poem 'My Skeleton' by Jane Hirshfield

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield And A Summary of 'My Skeleton'

'My Skeleton' is a short poem, an ode, that focuses on the skeleton, that collection of bones large and small we all possess, responsible for keeping our muscles and flesh one stable whole.

Jane Hirshfield published it in her book The Beauty in 2013, one of eleven poems concentrating on 'My'...My Proteins, My Eyes and so forth. These studies explore organic and mundane things, both hidden and clearly apparent, and carry the trademark meditative tone so common in much of Hirshfield's poetry.

She is a poet who takes the everyday and transforms it into something timeless, using a mix of plain description, metaphor and philosophical searching.

As Academy of American Poets member Rosanna Warren noted:

'Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature....They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.'

Being a Zen practitioner and Buddhist, Jane Hirshfield certainly offers both mystery and inner understanding to her readers. She doesn't create to reach a definite destination; she makes a round journey. Her poems help with 'the magnification of being' and transport the reader to fresh, inspiring interiors.

The speaker in My Skeleton acknowledges a separate existence by addressing the skeleton as you and as the poem progresses, gradually accepts the bones for what they are, unthinking yet subject to time and shrinkage.

Not averse to the scientific world - the poet is open-minded when it comes to the use of subject matter- Hirshfield puts to one side the fact that the actual skeleton is alive, dynamic and the source of all blood, but she does shed a unique light on the bony structure that keeps us all strong, upright and protected.

My Skeleton

My skeleton,
you who once ached
with your own growing larger

are now,
each year
imperceptibly smaller,
absorbed by your own

When I danced,
you danced.
When you broke,

And so it was lying down,
climbing the tiring stairs.
Your jaws. My bread.

Someday you,
what is left of you,
will be flensed of this marriage.

Angular wristbone's arthritis,
cracked harp of ribcage,
blunt of heel,
opened bowl of the skull,
twin platters of pelvis—
each of you will leave me behind,
at last serene.

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What did I know of your days,
your nights,
I who held you all my life
inside my hands
and thought they were empty?

You who held me all my life
inside your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.

Stanza By Stanza Analysis

My Skeleton is a slim poem on the page, split into various small stanzas. Glancing over it the reader can see some lines that consist of only one word, making this already a thoughtful and unusual poem.

First Stanza

The first line is simple enough, addressed directly to the skeleton. But this isn't any old skeleton the reader might be thinking, surely? Not a class skeleton kept in a cupboard ready for the next anatomy lesson?

No way. The next line confirms it as a living skeleton, or at least one that resides within a body of flesh and blood...that verb ached tells the reader that this is the real world of the growing human.

The third line reinforces the idea that there is a self speaking to her own skeleton by first going back in time when bones were growing and no doubt causing the host some growing pains.

Second Stanza

Enjambment 'joins' the two stanzas together, connecting the past of the first stanza with the present of the second. And the speaker is telling the reader the chronology....each year the bones are shrinking, hollowing out, but still functioning.

That double line..absorbed by your own/ almost scientific. Think of bone digesting bone? A process of gradual decay?

So now we know the aging process is well on the way.

Third Stanza

The speaker looks back to days of dance and breakage. This must have been during the sporty years, the athletic years, the youthful times when the pairing of skeleton with soul was at its best.

We all do it when we're young. We push the body to its limits without a thought for the consequences, taking our skeletons here, there and everywhere...and for granted. Until we break a bone, then and only then do we pay homage to our bones!

Fourth Stanza

More description of times past. All sorts of positions and activities. All the time the speaker persists in addressing the skeleton if this is a very close and intimate relationship. Naturally.

Fifth Stanza

The moment of change. The speaker looks into the future and states quite unemotionally that the skeleton will be flensed....that is, stripped from the marriage, like so much skin or fat.

The word flensed is often used in conjunction with animals and butchery...whale meat is flensed for example. This brings the reader back down to earth, back to the real world of muscle and blood.

Sixth Stanza

This is the most vivid stanza. Various parts of the skeleton are highlighted...wristbone, ribcage, heel, skull, pelvis...and wrapped in metaphor to deepen and broaden the reader's experience.

The speaker now reveals to the skeleton that piece by piece its bones will desert and leave her this the skeleton decaying in the grave? Or becoming decrepit? Or is that the soul/mind/heart slowly disassociates from the skeleton?

Seventh Stanza

The speaker now ponders on the prospects of past days and nights and the idea that she herself held the skeleton..inside my hands...thinking them empty. Yes, the skeleton just gets on with its job unseen (until breakages occur), a hidden structure without which we as humans would collapse into a blob of pink jellyfish.

Eighth Stanza

The last stanza reverses the the speaker suggests that the skeleton has held her, with hands, like a mother holds a child. The skeleton cannot think, it just is, it simply performs a job, forming in the womb, growing, strengthening, and keeping the flesh and muscle together as a unit.

The idea that the skeleton is separate yet a part of our being; the notion that it is in control of who we are as upright humans. Or that mere bone is our servant or vice versa. What is the skeleton, a distinct entity? Or is it completely subservient to the brain?

It is neither. It is a partner. It combines with muscle and flesh and blood to take us places we could never have imagined...into space where we're weightless, down into the sea where we're almost weightless.

This poem is, like many of Jane Hirshfield's, a catalyst - for debate, for inner scrutiny, for reflection and self-awareness.

Use of Literary Devices

My Skeleton is a short free verse poem of 37 lines broken into 8 stanzas.


When two or more words close together in a line begin with the same consonant:

twin platters of pelvis...thought they...Angular wristbone's arthritis


When two or more words are close together in a line and have similar-sounding vowels:

you who....own growing....climbing the tiring....opened bowl....


A break in a line causing a pause for the reader. For example:

Your jaws. My Bread.


When a line runs on into the next without punctuation, maintaining the sense. For example, in the final stanza, the first three lines are enjambed:

You who held me all my life

inside your hands

as a new mother holds

her own unblanketed child,

not thinking at all.


When an object or person or thing is substituted by another thing, becomes another thing, helping to broaden and widen understanding. For example:

cracked harp of ribcage....opened bowl of the skull


When an object or person or thing is likened to another thing. For example:

as a new mother holds

her own unblanketed


Being Alive, Bloodaxe, Neil Astley, 2004

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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