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?!