Parables and Portraits

parables and portraits

HarperCollins 1991

Out of Print

This book — which Richard Wilbur called “fresh, plain, profound, funny, and full of Zen ambushes” — is comprised of fifteen verse portraits and forty-seven prose poems and parables, all of them filled with Stephen Mitchell’s unique Judeo-Zen humor. The pieces range through history and myth, and investigate, encounter, or become such figures as Spinoza, Freud, Eve, Hitler, Cinderella, Faust, Montaigne, Achilles, and Jonah, and the illustrious camel who passed through the needle’s eye. “In Parables and Portraits,” Jim Harrison wrote, “we find work of the first order, poems of improbable directness and integrity that everyone who reads poetry will want to own.”



Cinderella, the soul, sits among the ashes. She is depressed, as usual. Look at her: dressed in rags, face smeared with grime, oily hair, barefoot. How will anyone ever see her for who she is? A sad state of affairs.

Winter afternoons, in a corner of the kitchen, she has long conversations with her fairy godmother, over a cup of tea. The fairy godmother has, accidentally on purpose, misplaced her magic wand. In any case, these transformations are only temporary. The beautiful spangled gown, the crystal slippers, the coach and footmen — all would have disappeared at the stroke of midnight. And then what?

It is like the man in the mirror, says the fairy godmother. No one can pull him out but himself.



Ready, set at their respective starting places, staring into the distance between the parallel white lines, they seem like an old married couple about to run through the same argument for the millionth time. Achilles is tense inside his huge golden muscles. The tortoise blinks.

Afterward, they shower; then walk, side by side, to a neighborhood café.

“It’s the damnedest thing,” says Achilles. “The more I catch up, the more reality slows down. Until it’s no longer even a film. Every time: we finish, immobilized, in a single frame.”

“With me a micro-meter ahead,” the tortoise adds, sighing. He takes another bite of his lettuce sandwich; chews for a while, meditatively; blinks.

“Maybe if I tried something different,” Achilles says. “Maybe a new pair of shoes.”



Something I left behind
calls me back to your time-zone,
when the son of man spoke Latin,
tucked lace in his collar, and upon
his brachycephalic dome
an equilateral velvet
hat was perched, like a dove.
Through the great marble hallways
of the British Museum, the ghost
of Descartes wandered, bemused.

If I were to find you now,
it could not be in the light.
You would have no chandeliers blazing,
no circle of friends around you
as, steadily, immensely, you poured
the distillates of your Tory
wisdom into their ears.
What, Sir, remains when the body,
one-eyed and scrofulous,
which lurched through the streets as in fetters
and rode horses like a balloon —
what remains what that body
casts off its cumbrous frame?
When all the splendid distinctions,
the intricate structures of right
and wrong, the golden yardsticks,
the algebras of dismay
vanish, you are left alone
with the sense of infinite vastness
that a child awakens to, blissful
or terrified, in the dead of night.

Perhaps you’re prepared to stay there.

Or perhaps, out of the fond
and unassuaged depths of your spirit,
an image, like a flower blooming
in fast-motion, begins to form,
the vision of a shapely leg,
the sweet cavern between two thighs.
And soon it is, yes, a world:
of consonants pullulating
and innocent flute-voiced vowels;
soon there are nests of quartos,
folios flap through the air
like homing geese, and the towers
and bridges of a city loom up
in the gray foreground. Those crowds —
are they heading into the Strand?
Those gentlemen in wigs and waistcoats —
are they bound for The Cheshire Cheese?

All right, Sir: let us begin
again. You are in the courtyard
of some country alehouse, fidgeting
in a coach of white and gold.
The driver (can you see?) is a dachshund.
The team are four brown mice.
Don’t be impatient. Take out
your handkerchief. Blow your nose.
We’ll be leaving in a moment. London
is no farther off than a sigh.



My ex-wife and my old Zen Master both were born at the cusp of July and August; so I know something about lions. It takes a while to get used to their habits. But once you have let them eat you alive, once they have picked you clean and left nothing but your white bones gleaming in the sunlight, you will find that you are perfectly at ease.

Take this figure of Manjushri, Bodhisattva of wisdom, Buddha before the fact. The lion he is enthroned upon looks like one of those huge good-natured dogs that will let a child pull its whiskers, or almost twist off its ears, without complaining. Chin resting on its paws, tail tucked neatly under its belly, it is imperturbable, because it knows who is the boss.

Manjushri himself sits, formal but relaxed, in a semi-lotus position, with one leg dangling over the lion’s right flank. Both his hands are clasped around the sword of spiritual discernment (one edge kills, the other gives life). He holds the sword straight up, invitingly, with a little grin.

“Living Buddhas are a dime a dozen,” the lion thinks, “but a good wooden Buddha is hard to find.”



Eve bites into the fruit. Suddenly she realizes that she is naked. She begins to cry.

The kindly serpent picks up a handkerchief, gives it to her. “It’s all right,” he says. “The first moment is always the hardest.”

“But I thought knowledge would be so wonderful,” Eve says, sniffling.

“Knowledge?!” laughs the serpent. “This fruit is from the Tree of Life.”



He had almost reached the end of the tunnel when he heard his friend’s voice calling him back. The voice was filled with love, but also with sorrow and pity, and not so much fear of death as resistance to it, as if it were an enemy to be expelled or overcome. He had realized so much, during the four days’ journey, that these resonances struck him as odd, coming as they did from a man of such insight; struck him as laughable, as almost childish. All the dramas of his short, intense life were an instant away from being resolved, dissolved, in the light at the end of the tunnel, which was not a physical light — after all, he no longer had physical eyes — but a radiant presence, a sense of completion a million times more blissful than what he had felt even in the company of his beloved friend. And the sweet, seductive drama of master and disciple, how childish that had been too, as if a candle flame needed to warm itself before a fire. He thought of his sisters in the old house in Bethany, of Mary anointing their friend’s feet and wiping them with her hair: the tenderness, the absurdity of that gesture.

The voice was still calling. He didn’t have the heart to refuse. He knew that, for his friend’s sake, he would have to postpone his disappearance, to hurry back down the tunnel and return to his body, left behind so gratefully, which had already begun to stink.

Greater love has no man.



Faust begins by cutting into a circle. This, given the purity of his intent, eventually leads to mass pollution and fifty thousand nuclear warheads pointed at everything he loves.

He does not enter the world as the first Adam entered Eve.

There are other ways of knowing.



In Dürer’s engraving
you sit hunched over your desk,
writing, with an extraneous
halo around your head.
You have everything you need: a mind
at ease with itself, and the generous
sunlight on pen, page, ink,
the few chairs, the vellum-bound books,
the skull on the windowsill that keeps you
honest (memento mori).
What you are concerned with
in your subtle craft is not simply
the life of language — to take
those boulder-like nouns of the Hebrew
text, those torrential verbs,
into your ear and remake them
in the hic-haec-hoc of your time —
but an innermost truth. For years
you listened when the Spirit was
the faintest breeze, not even the
breath of a sound. And wondered
how the word of God could be clasped
between the covers of a book.
Now, by the latticed window,
absorbed in your work,
the word becomes flesh, becomes sunlight
and leaf-mold, the smell of fresh bread
from the bakery down the lane,
the rumble of an ox-cart, the unconscious
ritual of a young woman
combing her hair, the bray
of a mule, an infant crying:
the whole vibrant life
of Bethlehem, outside your door.
None of it is an intrusion.
You are sitting in the magic circle
of yourself. In a corner, the small
watchdog is curled up, dreaming,
and beside it, on the threshold, the lion
dozes, with half-closed eyes.



Brooms make excellent dance partners. Though they are bald and armless, and have skinny, inflexible torsos, they more than compensate by their willingness to follow your lead. Draw them across the floor gently but with assurance. Remember to concentrate your willpower in your left hand. They will be completely at your disposal. They are courteous beings. If, occasionally, by mistake, they should happen to (ever so lightly) step on your toes, they will always apologize by simultaneously dusting off your shoe.



The camel catches his breath, wipes the sweat from his brow. It was a tight squeeze, but he made it.

Lying back on the unbelievably lush grass, he remembers: all those years (how excruciating they were!) of fasting and one-pointed concentration, until finally he was thin enough: thaumaturgically thin, thread-thin, almost unrecognizable in his camelness: until the moment in front of the unblinking eye, when he put his front hooves together. Took one long last breath. Aimed. Dived.

The exception may prove the rule, but what proves the exception? “It is not that such things are possible,” the camel thinks, smiling. “But such things are possible for me.”



Abraham is caught in a dilemma. In parable, he must sacrifice his beloved son, even if a substitute should miraculously appear, bleating, within the thicket. In fact, however, the command is obviously demonic and he must refuse. In parable, he is a paragon of wisdom; but he is a homicidal maniac in fact.

It’s as if someone were to reach out toward the face in the mirror and, with two-dimensional silvered-glass fingers, touched warm flesh.

As he grew up, Isaac remembered everything but the terror. He could still feel the weight of the firewood as he unstrapped it from the donkey’s back, could still smell the crisp, pine-scented autumn air, could hear the two sets of footsteps crunching the pebbles on the trail up Mount Moriah. But not the final moment; he had long since forgotten that: the moment when he waited, trussed up on the altar, the carving knife quivering against his breast, his father’s huge eyes above him, exalted and horrible. Over the years, as his own eyesight grew dim, the nightmare gradually acquired the details of a pious legend. The demented
thought became a heavenly command. The distorted features became an expression of infinite fatherly concern. The abrupt awakening became a miraculous, last-minute reprieve from a God who was only testing, after all.

Whatever experiences we cannot bear to be conscious of, we must repeat in all their anguish. Thus Isaac grows blind. He is betrayed by his wife and younger son. He goes to the grave a disappointed, frightened old man, perhaps with blue numbers etched onto his right arm. It will take much hard work, many hundreds of rebirths, before he is ready to have the last laugh.



All the old metaphors
are speechless, and the old truths
lie on exhibit in the morgue,
each with an oaktag label
on its big toe. Unless I am there,
Gautama is still questioning
under the Bodhi tree,
while in Bethlehem Mary’s womb stays
heavy, the ox and ass
looking on in mute compassion.

In the forest where you grew up
there was a small clearing
you liked to pray in. You would watch
the projects of the ants, or follow
a spider as it strung its web
in the crook of a maple-branch. Birdsong
unwound above you in lucid
confirmation. Whenever
you happened on the bloody remains
of a rabbit or squirrel, you buried them
gently, and recited
the Blessing upon meeting sorrow
face to Face. Prayer was
a quality of attention.
To make so much room
for the given
that it can appear as gift.

Years later they would come to you,
the doubters and the devout,
asking their pathless questions.
You wanted to get down on all fours.
You wanted to moo, or stand there
on tiptoe, flapping your wings.
What could you say, when the Good Name
was everywhere you were, uttered
by nightstorm and cloud and sunlight,
in fervor or grief. The few words
that you did find seemed
tinier than colored pebbles.
You had to pull them up quickly,
quickly, from far away.



Dressed in his long, white, long-sleeved,
blue-sashed holiday robe,
with a fashionably wispy beard
and some kind of Confucian doodad
on his head (it looks like a lantern),
the poet stands, face slightly tilted
upward, in the little grove.
It is just the first month of spring.
Yellow blossoms have appeared
on some of the branches. Others
are still bare. He is probably watching
the four or five black birds perched
on the central tree. Or perhaps
he is looking across to the left-hand
side of the page where, ending
a quote from Tu Fu, the character
for human being is inscribed
in two breathtakingly elegant
brush strokes. The ground is marshy.
A light wind rustles his robe.
Suddenly, with a shock, he realizes
that nothing in this life — nothing —
nothing — is ever lost.



Born in third-century Illyria, he soon established a reputation for spilling his food, bruising himself, and tripping over nonexistent objects in the street. His parents wanted him to become a doctor, in the hope that the rigorous training would make him more attentive. But he refused. Instead, he spent his time looking for angels in the dark alleyways of his native town, and feeding the stray cats. Even his martyrdom was botched. He felt so terrified, as the wild beasts approached him in the amphitheater, that he forgot the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

He has become the patron saint of the clumsy, the tactless, and the unqualified. They are instructed to leave a candle burning for him once a month (making sure that there is nothing flammable in the vicinity). His intercession is said to do more good than harm.


To Elizabeth Vitale

For the small boy lying in bed
in the summer shadows, his mind
stretching all the way to the edge
of the universe (which never arrives)
and the end of time (but then what?),
knowledge begins in pure awe
and a slowing of the breath
toward sleep, in gradual surrender
to everything that is of the night.

Even before you learned how
to think, you would stand for hours
in the scent of your father’s world,
turning the pages, wondering
at the rows of dark spines, perhaps
humming to yourself a canção
you had overheard long before.
Sometimes he held you on his lap
and you watched the thick, white-haired finger
move slowly, from right to left.
Aleph: a bull with two prongs
and a dog’s snout. Bet: a round tongue
in a square mouth. Gimel: a chair.
And the vowels floating below
the surface, like sleepy fish.
Not by those words but by
a resonance in your mind
did you know the essential lessons:
that the edge of doubt can be used
to cut through everything that has
hardened into belief;
that the only faith you could trust
was in your own clear awareness.

It is spring now, across the ocean.
Three centuries have gone by
since the rabbis’ anathema drove you
from Amsterdam’s brick-lined streets.
You were twenty-eight: a small man
with the olive skin and thick eyebrows
of a Portuguese Jew; courteous
to all, good-natured, noble
(if nobility means a passionate
disinterestedness). You liked
a pipe now and then, and felt
neither pity nor undue surprise
at the limitless varieties
of self-imposed human bondage
known as the habitable world.
Exquisitely frugal, like the snake
that forms a circle by holding
its tail in its mouth, you saved
your insight so that there would be
enough for a million days.
I see you in the early ‘70s
among the Dutch hippies spaced out
on legal hash, the bored women
in garter belts and high heels
on display in the windows, ghosts
of the old Jews Rembrandt
loved to paint, and the small
lively ghost of Anne Frank.
You are inside your shop, still making
lenses for the mind of Europe.
There is not much room. I sit down
on a wooden bench. You offer me
a glass of applejuice. You say,
leaning on the counter, “Rest easy.
All of them have their place
inside eternity. They are
perfect — that is to say, real:
a conclusion not easy to realize.
But all things excellent
are as difficult as they are rare.”



We tend to think of Sisyphus as a tragic hero, condemned by the gods to shoulder his rock sweatily up the mountain, and again up the mountain, forever.

The truth is that Sisyphus is in love with the rock. He cherishes every roughness and every ounce of it. He talks to it, sings to it. It has become the mysterious Other. He even dreams of it as he sleepwalks upward. Life is unimaginable without it, looming always above him like a huge gray moon.

He doesn’t realize that at any moment he is permitted to step aside, let the rock hurtle to the bottom, and go home.

Tragedy is the inertial force of the mind.



Blessed are the poor in spirit,
who realize that they have no more
than what is their own. They stand
tiptoe in the bright kingdom
of the moment, like children looking
down from the bedroom window,
waving hello, goodbye.



He had heard from her several times during his long absence. Three letters managed to arrive at Troy, one at Calypso’s island, and one at the cave of Polyphemus (it was delivered by a sheep). All of them written on the same light-blue 5 x 8” stationery, in her girlish, touchingly fluid handwriting, with looped thetas, and nus as round as upsilons. “Things are difficult but all is well… How ripe I have become for you… Much love…” The longer he was away, the more intensely he felt the gravitation of that love. Even on Aeaea or Ogygia, caught up in the embrace of one of the importunate, multi-orgasmic nymphs whom it was his fate to satisfy, he could sense her presence, could see her in bed or walking on the beach or sitting at her loom, as faithful to him, body and heart, as he was to her in his heart alone, alas.

Now, for the first time in twenty years, he stands before her. The suitors have gone home, disappointed but polite. The whole household — servants, maids, swine, cattle, chickens, and the astonished dogs — have retired. There are just the two of them. She looks, at fifty-three, even more beautiful, more transparent, than when he last saw her: her radiance like a flame that has outgrown its need for fuel. He is so proud of who she has become.

The silence deepens.

He stands there for a long time before letting himself plunge to the bottom of her eyes.



“Ooh, make it a sad story,” the children said. “Make it a sad, sad story.” They were sitting on the fence in the late February sunlight. They had all been changed into birds.

“Once there was a needle,” I began, “and every time it pierced the lips…”

“Oh,” cried the children, “we know about that kind of sorrow. Tell us about the other.”

I must admit that I was reluctant to continue. The sunlight in the yard was so poignant after a day of rain. I could hear their little claws skittering along the fence.

“All right,” I said. “Once there was a needle, and every time it pierced the eyes…”



Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae.
Luke 1:48

She stands by the table, poised
at the center of your vision,
with her left hand
just barely on
the pitcher’s handle, and her right
lightly touching the windowframe.
Serene as a clear sky, luminous
in her blue dress and many-toned
white cotton wimple, she is looking
nowhere. Upon her lips
is the subtlest and most lovely
of smiles, caught
for an instant
like a snowflake in a warm hand.
How weightless her body feels
as she stands, absorbed, within this
fulfillment that has brought more
than any harbinger could.
She looks down with an infinite
tenderness in her eyes,
as though the light at the window
were a new-born child
and her arms open enough
to hold it on her breast, forever.