Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Tuesday Poem - Mule Heart by Jane Hirshfield

One of the books that lives in the pile on my bedside table is a collection of interviews with poets - Fooling With Words by Bill Moyers (you won't spot it in this pic because right now it's on my bed!). . .

On page 110, Jane Hirshfield introduces her poem Mule Heart with the following story - 

"I was in Greece many years ago and saw how they put pannier baskets on the sides of the mules to carry things up and down the steep coastline. In the poem, the basket placed on the one side of the stubborn heart is filled with all the things you would want to keep: the fragrant lemons, the things you love. The other basket is for holding your griefs, your sorrows, everything that has abandoned you - which of course by the end of our lives will be everything, including our lives themselves. Each of these aspects of life the mule heart must carry: it carries our joys, and it carries our suffering. Maybe the two baskets mean that they balance, somehow. 

Many years passed between my seeing the little mules of Santorini and writing the poem. I wrote it to help me get through a time in my life when I thought a certain stubbornness would help. I told myself, 'Just last out the moment, and rely on the truth that everything changes; if you can simply hang in there, you'll be alright.' And from that feeling, the poem came. A wonderful thing about poetry is that at any moment a poem draws on everything you have ever known, seen, experienced. A poem is like those baskets, needing to be filled, and so your whole life must be available to each poem as you write it. This poem needed those mules, their flies and braided, belled bridles. Sometimes I think that poems use us in order to think, to their own work. You know, most of the time I feel as if I am in service of the poem - a poem isn't something I make, it's something I serve. . . "

              MULE HEART

              On the days when the rest 
              have failed you, 
              let this much be yours - 
              flies, dust, an unnameable odor,
              the two waiting baskets:
              one for the lemons and passion,
              the other for all that you have lost.
              Both empty, 
              it will come to your shoulder,
              breathe slowly against your bare arm.
              If you offer it hay, it will eat.
              Offered nothing,
              it will stand as long as you ask. 
              The little bells of the bridle will hang
              beside you quietly, 
              in the heat and the tree's thin shade.
              Do not let its sparse mane deceive you,
              or the way the left ear swivels into dream.
              This too is a gift of the gods,
              calm and complete.

             Jane Hirshfield 

 For more Tuesday Poems, please click on the quill. 
Janis Freegard has chosen This new place, a tender poem by Robert McGonigal

Donations for Christchurch - creative & financial - are coming in from near and far. The basket is filling. . . Please click on the MoA link below to view new artworks as they're being added to the Stockroom. THANK YOU XO 


  1. Interesting, the theme of this poem echoes the theme of my poem this week: Magnificent, or I think it does. The failure of body in one basket, the memories of the magnificence of body in the other... the getting through... Oddly too, I was walking in the bush with a friend just now and we were on a particularly thin rocky track and I talked about going up such a track on a donkey in Santorini. It was terrifying at times, but I didn't dare get off, which informed my reading of this poem. Thank you for it, Claire, and for your wonderful initiative to help Christchurch. Mary x

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  3. Mary, John - you've got me thinking. . . and thinking differently. Thanks. I will be back.

  4. "Calm and complete" -- the description works equally well for this delicate meditation on our stubborn, loyal, sometimes humble hearts, with their little bells and sparse manes. A gentle but penetrating image.
    I found it necessary to, in effect, unread the backstory to arrive wholly at the poem; Jane Hirshfield's comments pointed me in other directions more compelling in themselves than as prelude to "Mule Heart." What she says about being in service to the poem rings true, of course, and reminds me of Hayden Carruth's observation (quoting from memory): "Why ask about the uses of poetry? Poetry is what uses us."
    I like the redesign of your blog, C. It too feels calm and complete. -- T

  5. It may be too simplistic, but I see our human selves as the donkey and the baskets, but then one of my great enlightenments was when I knew I was Sisyphus AND the rock. What I loved most was learning about being in service to the poem, and the quote Timothy shared. There is so much in and about poetry I want to know. Thank you. xo

  6. Claire,

    I "love" this poem.

    Thank you for posting it.

    Thank you, too, for your moral support during the two weeks 'post 'quake'.

  7. John, where's your comment gone? I came back to read it again - what you said was useful and interesting. Oh well, I can always re-read my own comment... (hmmm, not nearly as satisfying)

  8. It's been too long since I've read Jane Hirshfield. Thank you for the nudge back in her direction.

  9. I awoke early this morning and found myself reading in The Essential Rumi ... after prayer. Beginning on page 70 is a poem titled After The Meditation. It ends with this verse, Don't trust that to anyone else, There are hypocrites who will praise you, but who do not care about the health of your heart-donkey. Be concentrated and leonine in the hunt for what is your true nourishment. Don't be distracted by blandishment-noises, of any sort. I remembered this poem of Jane Hirshfield's and found it here.