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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Belled Herds

I have early morning wakefulness, a kind of insomnia which wakes me in the middle of the night, often for an hour or two, and sometimes for the duration. It is during these hours that I lie awake and work on my poetry memorization project. This helps me accomplish my memorization goal, and keeps my mind from wandering into the panicky places that woke it in the first place.

Recently I've been working on memorizing my 10th poem, "The Envoy" by Jane Hirshfield, which I include below (and which you can hear the poet read here):

The Envoy by Jane Hirshfield

One day in that room, a small rat.
Two days later, a snake.

Who, seeing me enter,
whipped the long stripe of his
body under the bed,
then curled like a docile house-pet.

I don’t know how either came or left. 
Later, the flashlight found nothing.

For a year I watched
as something—terror? happiness? grief?— 
entered and then left my body.

Not knowing how it came in,
Not knowing how it went out.

It hung where words could not reach it.
It slept where light could not go.
Its scent was neither snake nor rat,
neither sensualist nor ascetic.

There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.

Through them
the belled herds travel at will,
long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.

This poem has stayed with me for years because of the stunning combination of recognition and foreigness I felt the first time I read the words "the belled herds." Immediately my mind conjured up images of Tibetans and nomadic Mongolians herding yaks, which I'd seen on TV documentaries. Although bells are used as a tool for managing herds of sheep and cows in my home country as well, I sensed immediately the strange feelings evoked by the situation this was a metaphor for, which were confirmed by the words "foreign dust" in the next line.

Still, there was a recognition, both of the sensation described and of the exotic metaphor used to describe it. The word "belled" so clearly lets the reader understand that these herds must be moved from place to place, either by migration or by nomadic owners or by grazing needs. Whatever the case, we immediately understand that bells have to be used on herds that are not fully enclosed by fencing, or not enclosed by fencing at all. If there were a complete and secure fence, no bell would be needed. We understand all of this without Hirshfield even having to mention fences and all the tangled feelings they create in us. So succinct a way to say so much.

And so I felt a complete understanding and yet a foreigness when I first read the words "belled herds," which of course is an echo of the feelings described in the poem. Brilliant.

Memorizing this poem also gave me the added benefit of noticing that it, like the Li-Young Lee poem "One Heart" that I memorized lasst month, use the word "opening" or "open" where I would have used "gap" or "gape" or "gaping hole." The comfort of seeing two of my favorite wise writers use these more mysteriously hopeful words to describe what I usually put a negative connotation to was a gift to me, one I wouldn't have noticed without my memorization project (or my sleeplessness, my opening into the night.)

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