Metempsychosis

by Jane Hirshfield


Original Language English

Some stories last many centuries,
others only a moment.
All alter over that lifetime like beach-glass,
grow distant and more beautiful with salt.

Yet even today, to look at a tree
and ask the story Who are you? is to be transformed.

There is a stage in us where each being, each thing, is a mirror.

Then the bees of self pour from the hive-door,
ravenous to enter the sweetness of flowering nettles and thistle.

Next comes the ringing a stone or violin or empty bucket
gives off --
the immeasurable's continuous singing,
before it goes back into story and feeling.

In Borneo, there are palm trees that walk on their high roots.
Slowly, with effort, they lift one leg then another.

I would like to join that stilted transmigration,
to feel my own skin vertical as theirs:
an ant-road, a highway for beetles.

I would like not minding, whatever travels my heart.
To follow it all the way into leaf-form, bark-furl, root-touch,
and then keep walking, unimaginably further.

-- from Given Sugar, Given Salt: Poems, by Jane Hirshfield

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

The title first: Metempsychosis is the transmigration of the psyche or the soul. It can be a synonym for reincarnation, though metempsychosis often implies the notion of re-embodiment in any form, not just another human body. It is the transference of self.

And this poem seems to consider this idea from several different angles.

Stories and trees.

To look at a tree, to really encounter it as a living being, as a living expression of awareness, something profound happens in us: we encounter something of ourselves in that tree.

There is a stage in us where each being, each thing, is a mirror.

The boundary between human and tree falls away, and the sense of self flows between the two. And there is a supreme sweetness in this recognition of shared being with the world around us.

Then the bees of self pour from the hive-door,
ravenous to enter the sweetness of flowering nettles and thistle.


Isn't this a wonderful image? The bees of self. We tend to think of the self as a single, solid thing, a body of sorts. But here we have the image of the self as cluster that escapes and scatters and spreads out into the world, hungry to experience the offered life all around it, so confident in itself that even barbs and stings hold their own sweetness. In Hirshfield's metempsychosis, we don't step from body A to body B; we pour out and taste all the world around us.

Next comes the ringing a stone or violin or empty bucket
gives off --
the immeasurable's continuous singing,
before it goes back into story and feeling.


When we step out of our own story, when learn to connect, when we learn to become, we find everything has its song. Everything is speaking always. The world rings with being.

In Borneo, there are palm trees that walk on their high roots.
Slowly, with effort, they lift one leg then another.


Walking trees... Some types of jungle trees grow from stilted, raised roots. It is said that, over time, they actually "walk" by growing new roots in one direction, while allowing the old roots to wither.

I would like to join that stilted transmigration...

What is most fascinating to me is the poet's assertion that she would like her skin to be a highway for ants and beetles.

I would like not minding, whatever travels my heart.

There may still be a self-protective, self-defining sense of self that reflexively hesitates, but yet she yearns to feel the many marching trails of life merging, the great slow pathways of walking trees, and the minute busy paths of ants upon the tree.

And every one of those roads is part of the journeying self.

To follow it all the way into leaf-form, bark-furl, root-touch,
and then keep walking, unimaginably further.



Recommended Books: Jane Hirshfield

Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women Given Sugar, Given Salt: Poems The Lives of the Heart: Poems The October Palace: Poems Of Gravity & Angels
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Metempsychosis