Haibun Today
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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 4, December 2011



Dru Philippou
Taos, New Mexico, USA

Entering the Mystery of “Hipólito, the Herder”

 

Several summers ago, a friend came upon a shepherd’s grave on a remote knoll in northern New Mexico. The name on the wooden cross was Hipólito. My friend returned in the fall and planted tulip bulbs to honour the shepherd’s life. The following summer, he showed me the grave with the blooming tulips. We sat in the shade of the cedar tree wondering about his life, how much time he spent alone, whether he had friends, family, children, what made him laugh, who buried him and made this simple cross. 

Stirred by the mystery of his life, I identified the flora near his gravesite as “blue grass” and “white clover” and coaxed out the first verse of a tanka prose piece:

with his crook
he navigates
the rough terrain
early bluegrass
and white clover

As there was no information about Hipólito’s life, I borrowed from the mythological story of Pan. The goat-footed herder lived in the pastoral paradise of Arcadia, a mountainous region in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. He roamed the meadows watching over his sheep, hunting, and playing his reed pipes to nymphs who accompanied him in dance and song, celebrating the Olympian gods. This led to the second verse:

villagers liken
the shepherd to
ruddy-limbed Pan
piping to nymphs
nearby a spring

In the final verse, the pivot words “heavenly sleep” can be read as the blissful sleep of the shepherd, his death, and the alchemy of Pan’s pipes:

rustic viands
for his fare
and tinkling bells
the heavenly sleep
of the herder

Entranced with the myth of Pan, I delved deeper and learned of his encounter with Psyche who, in mourning the loss of her husband Eros’s love, threw herself in a river to end her sorrows. The river tossed her out onto the bank where Pan was frolicking with his nymphs. He advised her to win back Eros’s love. I read the myth of Psyche and Eros and noted that Eros, the god of love, also inspires creativity:

For the Greeks, the essence of Eros is the unfoldment of human thought, and in Greek philosophy, he is described as a liberating agent who releases and activates the creative process of the mind. Eros inspires and opens the channel of intuition to the higher and abstract understanding and communion with beauty and truth.1

To regain Eros’s love, Psyche must complete four tasks assigned to her by Aphrodite, Eros’s mother. I became aware that these tasks were metaphors for my creative process. They are briefly described below:

Task 1: Psyche must sort out a heap of mixed seeds before nightfall. An army of ants comes to her rescue and instinctively separates the seeds into their appropriate piles.

On my initial draft, the ideas seem like a chaotic jumble akin to the heap of seeds the ants must sort. Instinct, the domain of the right side of the brain, takes over and I find ways to sort the ideas making the piece more coherent.

Task 2: Psyche has to obtain the golden fleece from a herd of rams grazing by the river. Through song, a green reed warns her not to gather the wool at noon when the rams are maddened and intoxicated by the sun, but to wait until dusk when they are calmer.

I think back to the times when I tried to force my writing. More often than not, the writing resulted in artificiality, in something made up rather than experienced. My writing flows more naturally when I am calmer and not pressuring myself.

Task 3: Psyche must fill a phial with spring water that bubbles up from an inaccessible mountain peak. Dragons guard the spring, which feeds the Rivers Styx and Cocytus. This time, her ally is Zeus's royal eagle. The eagle is able to spot the spring from a great height. It swoops down with accuracy and fills the phial.

When I am blocked in my writing, I put it aside for a while to gain distance. Then, it is easier to spot the flaws.

Task 4: Aphrodite sends Psyche into the underworld to collect a box of beauty ointment from Persephone. Psyche, too terrified to approach the gates of hell, intends to end her life by jumping off a towering stone. The stone speaks and commands her to take two barley-cakes and two coins into the underworld. She must hold the barley cakes in each hand and place the coins in her mouth. Unable to touch or speak, Psyche is forced to turn inward and focus on herself. In the underworld, she will encounter a donkey-driver, a drowning man, and the three Fates. She is not to help or be distracted by any of them but is to say, "No," three times.

My writing demands tuning out the noise of the external world and tuning into an inner world.

Writing "Hipólito, the Herder" has unexpectedly taken me into the realm of myths. In consciously relating them to my life as a writer, I have come to understand how these ancient stories are more than myth. In hindsight, my urge to write about the shepherd reflected a yearning to transcend my feelings of aloneness, of separateness. The planting of flowers stands as a metaphor for the writing of "Hipólito."

Hipólito, the Herder 2

with his crook
he navigates
the rough terrain
early bluegrass
and white clover

villagers liken
the shepherd to
ruddy-limbed Pan
piping to nymphs
nearby a spring

rustic viands
for his fare
and tinkling bells
the heavenly sleep
of the herder

"Go down from the trail over the matted grass and up along the fence," my friend tells me. "Pass the water trough to the cedar in the distance, shading the grave with red and yellow tulips that I planted last year. The sheepherder, Hipólito, is buried there." I read his name with the birth and death dates (1912-1971) carved on the cross. Nothing else is known about him, but my friend often says, "Go by Hipólito's grave."




Notes

1Alice Ouzounian, Eros and the Mystery of the Inner Process, http://www.plotinus.com/eros_copy.html  (last accessed October 2011).

2 "Hipólito, the Herder" is reprinted above with revisions and first appeared in Modern English Tanka V3, N4 (2009).

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