Mary Oliver, EarthSaint
- Since finding Mary Oliver's poetry some years ago, I have learned a few poems by heart, carried fragments like talismans. The mystery, energy, and accuracy of her works speak to me, serve as prayers in time of need and celebration, bracing reminders for living my life in this world of "nature," and with other humans.
- Her poems reflect the serious questions of faith, sometimes in visionary, ecstatic language, as in "When Death Comes:"
- When it's over, I want to say: all my life
- I was a bride married to amazement.
- I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
- Or with wry humor, a true sense of proportion, as in "The Moths," from Dream Work:
- You aren't much, I said
- one day to my reflection
- in a green pond
- and grinned.
- Writing in The Poet's Notebook, Stephen Dunn says: "The trouble with most nature poetry is that it doesn't sufficiently acknowledge nature's ugliness and perversity." In other words, we often fail to pay attention. And attention is the luminous gift of Mary Oliver's writing, poems with clarity of detail, memorable music, and deft linkage of human insight to the carefully observed world, which she praises and loves with wide open heart and eyes.
- In Blue Pastures she tells us: "Nothing in the forest is charming... nothing in the forest is cute... Animals are not toys." Simplistic words, she says, make "impossible the other view of nature, which is a realm both sacred and intricate, as well as powerful, of which we are no more than a single part. We are all wild, valorous, amazing. We are, none of us, cute."
- Over and over Mary Oliver's poems cry to us: "Look!" They ask: "Have you ever seen? Do you love this world? Listen, listen, I'm forever saying." She encourages us to walk daily where we live, to trust what we see, to trust our own imaginative response, even when "what blazes the trail isn't necessarily pretty." ("Skunk Cabbage.")
Taut, muscular, spare - and beautiful - this poetry honors the rich diversity of the world, and our responding and responsible place here. Her attention is focused, precise, contemplative. She learns, and well, from an immense variety of creatures, trees, plants, the ponds. And from her own life in Ohio, New England, her travels and teaching, from musicians, artists, other writers. Out of astonishment, devotion, imagination, she finds the forms which invite us in-to rejoice with her, and to marvel, and then to do our work.
In EarthLight's pages, I've met many EarthSaints, and I sometimes think that they resist canonization. "Admiration is a comfortable distance at which to stand," Kate Hennessey tells us in a recent issue of The Catholic Worker, as she writes memories of her grandmother, Dorothy Day. So too, with Mary Oliver. Admire her work as we do, the poems ask more: Imagination is better than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work. ("Yes! No!" )
An insightful essay written by Marilyn Chancler McEntyre ("A Reading of Mary Oliver," Santa Barbara Review, Fall/Winter, 1994), explores the poem, "Wild Geese." She writes: "We are invited. To speak and be spoken to, and to enter into the gentle, humble, wild, free, authoritative work of the imagination -- the work this poet shows us how to do -- to learn the language of the inarticulate natural world and hear its message, reiterated in every sentient thing: Be. It is an echo of another message: I am. To be is the holiest thing. You do not have to be good."
"Poetry," Mary Oliver writes in A Poetry Handbook, "is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision, a faith, to use an old fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed."
Jeanne Lohmann is EarthLight's poetry editor. Her volume of poetry Granite Under Water, is in its second printing. She lives in Washington state.
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