Difficult Gifts – Jane Hirschfield’s Shining White Bull

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World

If the gods bring to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen.

Say the accustomed prayers,
oil the hooves well,
caress the small ears with praise.

Have the new halter of woven silver
embedded with jewels.
Spare no expense, pay what is asked,
when a gift arrives from the sea.

Treat it as you yourself
would be treated,
brought speechless and naked
into the court of a king.

And when the request finally comes,
do not hesitate even an instant—

Stroke the white throat,
the heavy, trembling dewlaps
you’ve come to believe were yours,
and plunge in the knife.

Not once
did you enter the pasture
without pause,
without yourself trembling.
That you came to love it, that was the gift.

Let the envious gods take back what they can.

Jane Hirschfield from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions – Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2005

The Canadian poet Heidi Garnett reminded me of this signature poem by American poet Jane Hirschfield a few days ago. Mentioned how it brings her to tears every time she reads it. I have bridled at the poem in some way over the years. That I would have to kill such a gift. But something Heidi said has changed my feelings toward this poem!

It is only in embracing our shadow selves that we can become whole, those aspects of ourselves we’ve rejected because they seemed so repugnant.   I’m thinking now of that beautiful poem by Hirschfield, the one that brings me to tears whenever I read it.  The gift is not the creature, but that we come to love him, to love ourselves.

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett, contributor to Poem in Your Pocket and author of Blood Orange, Frontenac House, 2016. Photo: Frontenac House

Is it the killing of our shiny selves, our personas this poem is suggesting? I like that take on it! I know there are others as well. But so many things in my life I have had to let go. Parents, friends, former spouses. Can I not focus on the losses but instead the love I have felt for them.  The gift of that. And in that remembrance can I love myself and forgive myself for my role in the difficult moments during those relationships?!


  1. Posted December 1, 2017 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Richard, it strikes me that perhaps the true tragedy in this myth is not the hero’s carelessness in leaving his ship’s black sails up which results in his father’s death, but the killing of the minotaur, man’s shadow side. In so doing all of the tragedies that follow make perfect sense.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted December 22, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Dear Heidi – Oh for sure, how to make peace with the shadow instead of trying to kill it! Or at least to kill it in an act of love and kindness. With its consent.

  3. Martha
    Posted February 14, 2018 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    This poem by Hirschfield brought me to tears also. I have a dear friend recently diagnosed with ALS. A “strange and frightening gift” indeed. I am sad, sad, sad for his suffering and for the unarguable prognosis. But what makes me cry is Arone seeing his circumstance as a gift. “What better way to die,” he said to me, holding both my hands. “To be awake and able to watch the process of the body letting go! To be able to observe that!” Weeping, I bow to you, my friend.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted February 14, 2018 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Dear dear Martha; To get this comment. Such a joy on Valentine’s day! This poem, one of Heidi’s favorites. And one I am not naturally drawn to for all the reasons you note in your note! So love that you are responding to an older post. That you were reading it. Writing these blogs and knowing others might be enjoying them or if not enjoying them! responding to them is one of my great joys at this time in my life!

    have you picked up Patrick’s book?

    All best,


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