Embracing the Gods: “Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World”

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..




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.


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.

Jane Hirshfield, 2015

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, a sudden crazed lust or broken relationship reaching up at exactly the right moment to grab us by the throat and haunt our dreams, asking, demanding, “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.

But why?

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’…


Comments? Questions? Suggestions, Objections, Attaboys? Just scroll on down to the Comments section below. No minimum or maximum word counts!

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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: larry@rosefoto.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/

5 comments to Embracing the Gods: “Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    On the surface, accepting the horror of an immensely personal and tragic event as a gift flies in the face of sensibility. How can people who live in communities like Lewistown, Parkland and Newtown realistically consider the mass killings of friends or family as a gift? Is it possible to decorate such a painful event with silver and jewels? I just can’t fathom that. Nevertheless, I do understand that wallowing in a tragedy which lies outside your ability to control can be devastating as well. Jane Hirshfield is right about one thing. In order to move beyond the tears and heartache, a knife must be plunged into the white bull. One can’t live out life in a state of self-pity or constant depression. A pasture where hope and happiness can once again thrive requires a certain degree of acceptance, difficult as it may seem. W.B. Yeats wrote in his poem “Easter, 1916”, a moving response to the many who died too young in the first World War, that “Too long a sacrifice Can make a stone of the heart.” He ended it with “Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” Unfortunately, more often than not, killing this “killer” lies outside one’s capability; it lives like a slave enchained.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hey Robert, I don’t think Hirshfield implies that anyone considering mass killings could regard it as a gift in disguise. I think I pointed that out pretty clearly on her behalf, she not being here in the room with us to explain it herself! It just wouldn’t make for much of a poem, though, if she were to posit the rampaging white bull as a gift in a psychological sense, in many life circumstances, but then add a disclaimer, “But I don’t mean in every case, and certainly not in mass killings!” I think she leaves that to good-sense interpretation, and for any given reader to wrestle with it as they will.

      Your poem references remind me of Louis Simpson’s “O Carentan, O Carentan,” also discussed here in the long ago.
      And in music, John Gorka’s “Let Them In.” http://andrewhidas.com/the-best-anti-war-song-ever/

      Keep those references comin’, my friend!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Two devastating occurrences in my adult life came immediately to mind while reading the White Bull: one of them life-threatening, the other life-wrenchingly painful. Fourteen years ago my life was nearly taken by a stroke that temporarily left me with several physical and cognitve deficits, including complete left-side paralysis and “executive function” disorientation in brain activity. Thankfully, with the help of remarkable therapists and supportive family and friends (and the internal drive to make it all work), I was on my feet and back to my responsibilities as a college president four months later. Looking for a silver lining to the whole episode, I began to think of the stroke as a “wake-up” call for me to get past my runaway pride in having become a college president. The White Buffalo came crashing through as the accolades and praise for the accomplishments of my administration and me were piling up during very challenging times for our college and community. I gradually learned to embrace and cherish the buffalo, even to the point of believing that I had come through its visit a better and stronger person and president.

    That lasted four years and then another visit came and crushed me. I was not better. It turns out that I had once again thought of myself as infallible and irreplaceable, and the bull came crashing through in the form of Board of Trustee members that believed it was time to send me to another pasture. Being fired from a position (an identity) that I cherished was a crushing blow. It also forced me to grow beyond my identity-dependence on a professional position and forced me to take stock of my life, my relationships, and priorities. I suspect Hirshfield is delving into these point-counterpoint dynamics of internal struggles with externally imposed forces that disrupt routine daily living.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      So interesting that you got to play that infallible hero myth out twice, Jay. Like once wasn’t enough! (I suspect Joseph Campbell would’ve loved talking to you…) It’s quite a story, really; would make a great basis for a memoir. (Just sayin’…)

      Glad you’ve come out the other end intact, in all the ways that matter the most. Mazel tov!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Intact is a true blessing, though not necessarily heroic, Keeping an eye out for the next White Bull visit/opportunity. thanks again for the post. Cheers.

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