Ask Much, the Voice Suggested
by Jane Hirshfield
Ask much, the voice suggested, and I startled.
Feeling my body like the trembling body of a horse
tied to its tree while the strange noise
passes over its ears.
I who in extremity had always wanted less,
even of eating, of sleeping.
Agile, the voice did not speak again, but waited.
“Want more” –
a cure for longing I had not thought of.
But that is how it is with wells.
Whatever is taken refills to the steady level.
The voice agreed, though softly, to quiet the feet of the horse:
A cup taken out, a cup reappears; a bucketful taken, a bucket.
One evening long ago when my youngest daughter was getting ready for her first concert, I leaned in the bathroom doorway to watch with bemusement as she straightened her hair, lengthened her lashes, and went on and on about how excited she was. “This is going to be the greatest night of my life!” she said.
“Well,” I felt compelled to say, having seen the disappointment many such nights brought her older siblings, ”it probably won’t be the best night of your life.”
Poet Jane Hirshfield might take issue.
All these years later, I take issue. I take issue with that mother so intent on instilling the stoicism of her own youth, so keen to teach her kids to expect less so that more is always a happy surprise that she sucked the joy right out of the bathroom, or as my husband likes to pantomime, stomped on the flower just as it was coming up from the ground.
By way of a belated apology, I gave “Ask Much, The Voice Suggested” to that same daughter. I slipped it in her backpack at the airport as she left for a year abroad to teach English. Obviously she didn’t learn from her mother to fear disappointment more than missed opportunity.
In my late middle-age I begin to get it. I think many people my age do. Ask much. Want more. Not more stuff. More life. Want more of people, of relationships, of time. Life holds so much possibility, so much that’s splendid and variable, why settle for less? Why settle for screen time and soulless shopping and obsessions and anxieties about our bodies? There’s so much more than that. Ask much.
Obviously the poem can’t be boiled down to aphorisms. Like the well described at the end (a wishing well, I see now), it’s a poem that re-fills even as you think you’re draining it. Where does the voice come from? Who is that horse, what is that tree, that tether?
The final lines trip me up, even after many years of reading them. Maybe it’s my utter confusion around physical science and fluid mechanics, but I don’t understand. In real-life, practical terms, how does getting something re-fill the well? Or is the well re-filling with wanting, with asking, not with the actual thing asked for, and if so, how does that solve the problem of wanting more? You see that I am dense. Anyone who can help me work through this, come forward.
But even in my confusion I understand that for the poet, as for me, the voice is benevolent. The voice is on her side. It wants for her what she’s afraid to want for herself. It’s agile when it first comes, suggesting eagerness, readiness to help, and then it’s soft in consideration of the trembling horse still tied to the tree.
I’ve been lucky enough in life that such benevolence is not hard to understand.
Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City. After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.
I read an interview with her from PalettePoetry.com and came across this question-and-answer which I suspect is relevant to “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested.”
Q: HOW DO YOU CLIMB OUT OF A DRY SPELL OF WRITING?
JH: By longing. I grow lonely for poems, the way you would grow lonely for an absent lover. And then they return. Longing is the ladder we meet on.
GREAT POST laughed out loud… and this poem is good to the soul! There’s a message of abundance in here, the abundance of the divine, of being alive… always ready with more, always refilling our bucket. The cure for longing, to ask much, to long more… I will be pondering this in me heart!
And tuning into this cup/bucket-filling, when our cup is filled it can’t help but spill over for others, and we want more for others naturally. we want relief of suffering, we want more freedom, more joy, more love for others.
Yer onto something here, Lizzie Lou
Great post. The picture your husband painted of “stomping the flower just as it was coming out of the ground” made me laugh out loud.
After middle age passed me by and I entered my 60s I started to feel that I really do want more, and as you say not more stuff…I am trying get rid of half the stuff I do have…but more time. It happens when you realize that although you don’t know how much time you have left, you certainly have more days behind you than ahead of you.
I have been reading your posts for a long time, and this is one of your most thought provoking.
Thanks. Your thoughts on time are poignant and well-put if hard to accept.
There is a story about a zen master having tea with a prospective student. The master begins to pour the tea and even after the cup is full he continues to pour. When the student protests he is overfilling the cup, the master says to him he is like that cup, so full that nothing else can be added. You must have some empty space for new experiences, new thought, new ways of doing things. If you are so full of . . . yourself, the life you have now, nothing can be added. You have to want more . . . empty yourself until you have some space for longing, for wanting more. I am trying to remember this each time I start to make an automatic answer to something someone is saying. I try to remember to pause, make a space, so I can really understand what they are saying and what I want to say. I find that while I am slower in conversation and miss some opportunities to tell a good story, I am often rewarded by learning something I did not know before. A good trade
And thank you for including that quote :Longing is the ladder we meet on.
I will remember that one . . . such a poignant way of trying to describe that space where the writing comes from, and the need that drives it. Thank you!
So many good comments. This post comes on the heels of my mom dying. I am so overfull from reviewing a life and writing an obit and combing through photos and constant family interactions… I seriously am grabbing on to this poem and these comments like they are a ladder pulling me out of a mire of overwhelm. I’m just too full. So the old story Sherry tells is one that resonates. Mother death is a country, just like when my dad died. Totally different language and landscape. Anyway thank you for the poem and the story and the transparency.
Pam, so sorry for your loss. We’ve just lost my mother-in-law and our dog in the past two-and-a-half weeks, so I’m a citizen of Mother Death as well. We climb that ladder together. Condolences.
My heart goes out to you. It’s otherworldly. It’s been beautiful to share with my sisters though. We’ve come together in a way unimaginable. Lots of goodness here. I hope you too are in a cocoon of nutritious support.
Thank you, Sherry, for these reflections. So much to think about here, so much to live out here.