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.