Somehow or other I missed this poem all these years, despite its prominence in anthologies and wide acclaim for its author, Jane Hirshfield. “Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World” is a dramatic, “big” poem—big in ambition, imagery, and theme. Hirshfield is not content here to search for heaven in a wildflower or angel dust on a vase.
Not that there’s anything wrong with such poetic devices, as Hirshfield herself would surely attest.
But when her second line launches in on a “strange and frightening creature” that we know from the title is a “white bull,” we had better prepare for what I suspect Hirshfield would be happy to see turned into the poetic ride of our lives, jostling us out of whatever numbness has descended as we go about responding routinely about routine challenges in a routine world.
“Not on your life!” her white bull says.
We know these things happen; even as children we catch glimmers that the lifestreams of Adultville do not always flow gently to the sea.
Hirshfield channels that sentiment in a soaring 27 lines that advises us on exactly how to treat our unexpected visitor. It includes details on what measures to take in making him feel beloved and welcome.
And then, in one sudden and shocking line, turning on him with a violence that complicates a kind of first-tier understanding we might have thought would complete our search for the poem’s “meaning.”
That’s assuming it had one intended meaning, rather than, oh, 10 open-ended questions to ponder or 20 stirring images to absorb and parse.
Let’s give it a read below and then we will commence with further discussion..
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.
did you enter the pasture
without yourself trembling.
That you came to love it, that was the gift.
Let the envious gods take back what they can.
On one level, Hirshfield is positing a kind of radical acceptance, an exhortation to “take what comes” at us in life, to acknowledge its “isness,” the sheer primacy of Things That Happen, over which we have little or no control.
On another level, it goes beyond simple observation and acceptance to a welcoming and reframing, “accept(ing) the gift/as if it were one you had chosen.”
I should clarify my own sense that Hirshfield is after internal psychological terrain here, reflecting on growth and perspective and wisdom, not averting eyes and ears from tragedy.
Sure, serious illness can be the goring you need to get straight with your life, your calling or your god and emerge the better for it. But you or your child abducted and taken hostage by an invading army or slaughtered in a bowling alley, to take two lamentable current examples, is impossible to frame as just another surmountable challenge life throws your way, suitable for reframing.
Hirshfield is too good a Buddhist (more than a decade as a lay Zen monk through her 20s, during which she set aside her budding poetic career), too attuned to the enduring heartbreak of the world, to toss off bromides that minimize drastic suffering.
Perhaps this is the importance of the “white” bull, bringing some rampage in the door with him but also light, absent the dark negation of an utterly ruinous black bull. Let us call it the White Bull of Opportunity, come not knocking, but full-on barging in.
Since he arrived quite outside our invitation and, being a bull, will be staying just as long as he pleases, Hirshfield suggests we turn toward it in welcome, facing the in-breakings of spirit, chaos and foul circumstance he represents, the sudden intrusion that turns our life upside down, challenging our comforts and convictions and ways of understanding ourselves.
Could be a book or work of art or teacher or accident or sudden broken relationship reaching up at exactly the right moment to grab us by the throat and haunt our dreams, saying, “Don’t you see? You must now change your life!”
Shaken, we feel unmoored, unsettled, adrift.
It matters not that we know these things happen; even as children we catch glimmers that the lifestreams of Adultville do not always flow gently to the sea.
But shock, nevertheless. What do we do now?
What we do is “Spare no expense, pay what is asked,/…Treat it as you yourself/would be treated,” Hirshfield writes. Because in the end, the way out is through, when you live into the bull’s intrusion and realize, “That you came to love it, that was the gift.”
All of which is well and good, and we have probably all had the experience of saying, from the perspective of having come out the other end, “That terrible thing was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
But I have to admit: I did not see Hirshfield’s knife coming. (Happy to be talking metaphorically here.)
I gasped internally at “plunge”—such an active verb, not a mere menacing slash or even stab. It brought me to complete attention.
“Plunge” takes the knife way, way down, aggressing with each inch, leaving no room for doubt that it is murder and murder alone on the plunger’s mind.
Why treat the bull so royally, oiling its hooves, showering it with jewels, stroking its throat, only to send its blood spurting underneath you?
And what’s with the “…trembling dewlaps/you’ve come to believe were yours.”? This strongly suggests we are not one with the bull, that its fate under our knife is not our fate, and that we are killing it out of some necessity for our own liberation.
So, gift though it has been, earning our prayers and caresses for its role in forever changing us, the final act of our freedom is to kill it, too, so we are unencumbered and free to roam the pasture where our life plays out. And we proceed with all due “pause” and “trembling” upon every entry—humble, respectful, appreciative of all that the bull and its momentary habitation in our pasture has brought us.
And now it is time for him to go.
We plunge the knife into the bull to reclaim our life, our pasture, its beauties and duties and burdens, to do with them as we will and make of them what we can.
Always mindful that the “envious gods” of otherness and intrusion may ride in again and again to “take back what they can.”
Is that what this poem “means?” I am going to say, in all humility here, I don’t really know. I was thinking along very different lines the other night, but came back to it yesterday afternoon and had to admit, “Naw, I don’t think it means that anymore.”
I may come back again tomorrow and something else might poke its head out from a line and send me in yet another direction.
That is the beauty and challenge of fine poetry, of which this is a sterling and lovely example.
And then again—we can…just keep rollin’…
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The poem above was originally published in “The Lives of the Heart” (HarperCollins, 1997)
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
White bull artwork from the public domain
Knife thrust by Javier Peña, Cáceres, Spain https://unsplash.com/@dreamshunter94
Jane Hirshfield portrait by Curt Richter, courtesy of Vassar College https://www.flickr.com/photos/vassarcollegemedia/