Friday, April 24, 2009

Mary Oliver: Evidence

It's been said that every great poet (or artist, or novelist etc.) is simply writing the same great poem over again and again. The poet herself first and foremost understands this deeply, deeply - it runs to the source, the unexplainable essence from which it springs.

Have you not heard the sparrow, singing?

Most critics have written off Mary Oliver a long time ago. They may acknowledge that she has written a number of very good, if not great, poems (& who among them can say the same, eh, William Logan?) but now, they say, she just repeats past glories, retreads the same old tropes.

And the waves, do they not repeat past glories, retread old tropes?

Imagine, in your life as a poet, toiling day in and day out, for a lifetime, how ever long, imagine having written a handful of poems that deeply touched the lives of others, some who have devoted their lives to the word, others who have not.


Mary Oliver has touched the lives of many and she has done it by tapping deep into the well-spring not only of what makes us human, but also into what it is to live. She shares the great subjects and themes of no less than Whitman and Emerson and Snyder and Berry and Wordsworth and Thoreau. She is formidable, in her way.

If you are a Mary Oliver fan, as I am, you will enjoy very much her new book, Evidence. If you are not, perhaps there is nothing here that will win you over. But there are a handful of poems in this collection which revisit that well and it is pure and it is cold and it is deep.

You will find no workshop Evian here, friends.

And who among us can say the same, a handful of poems, pure and cold and deep?

Yes, there are poems that are working through the same images, the same thoughts, the same themes. Some are light, very light, indeed. But they are true: true to her vision, true to her thought, true to herself. True to the world.

When she gifts another with a cherished possession (a bone from the ear of a whale, found deposited on the beach at the edge of the Atlantic) the significance of which she has written about previously, I felt, in fact, she was gifting her heart.

Imagine giving away the object that inspired a poem that tens of thousands of people read and loved. And the gift she receives in return is even more beautiful, one that Yeats and Lawrence would have admired, indeed.

Here are 3 poems from Evidence that work for me; the are distinctly the Mary Oliver of my mind, not all pretty nature and beautiful this and lovely that. They are the Mary Oliver that senses death, right here, right now, all the time, and its power and its strength are its beauty, the beauty of life.

The beauty of death.

Li Po and the Moon

There is the story of the old Chinese poet:
at night in his boat he went drinking and dreaming
--and singing

then drowned as he reached for the moon's reflection.
Well, probably each of us, at some time, has been
--as desperate.

Not the moon, though.
Mary Oliver

Thinking of Swirler
One day I went out
--into a wonderful
----ongoing afternoon,
------it was fall,

the pine trees were brushing themselves
--against the sky
---as though they were painting it,
----and Swirler,

who was alive then,
--was walking slowly
---through the green bog,
----his neck

as thick as an ox,
--his antlers
----brushing against the trees,
-- -- his three good feet tapping

the softness beneath him
--and the fourth, from an old wound,
------I know he saw me

for he gave me a long look
--which was as precious as a few
----good words,
------since his eyes

were without terror.
--What do the creatures know?
----What in this world can we be certain about?
------How did he know I was nothing

but a harmless mumbler of words,
--some of which would be about him
----and this wind-whipped day?
------In a week he would be dead,

arrowed down by a man I like,
--though with some difficulty.
----In my house there are a hundred half-done poems.
------Each of us leaves an unfinished life.
Mary Oliver

He takes such small steps
to express our longings.
Thank you, Schubert.

How many hours
do I sit here
aching to do

what I do not do
when, suddenly,
he throws a single note

higher than the others
so that I feel
the green field of hope,

and then, descending,
all this world's sorrow,
so deadly, so beautiful.
Mary Oliver


This Sunday, I am going to start a new occasional series, entitled Issa's Sunday Service, which will include a song and a poem.

Because, well, there is just not enough going on around here ...

if my father were here--
dawn colors
over green fields
translated by David Lanoue



Anonymous said...

Mary Oliver!

You too?

/I fell out
of a dinghy

was reaching for an oar
that fell in the water..

next thing I know
while standing there

the dinghy goes over
the falls...

heck... I could have drownded and died.... or worst!

this was in 1957 at Seneca Lake just above Great Falls


Brian said...

I have not read all of Oliver's works, but whenever I pick up a book I always enjoy what I find.

The shifts in tone in Li Po and The Moon are very nice.

Jim H. said...

That phrase "...with some difficulty..." is like a little land mine.

Your description of Oliver's authenticity reminds me of a line from a Bob Dylan song: "...true like ice like fire."

Anonymous said...

Sold to the misfit librarian in black...

I suspect your Sunday service will be the kind I can really get behind - can't hardly wait!


Charles Gramlich said...

I absolutely believe that great writers, poets and otherwise, revisit certain themes over and over. It takes a lifetime sometimes to understand something well enough to truly write about it.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ed, yes, we are all mostly rowing in one direction or another, with the falls impending - I do love those who row towards ...

Brian, the Li Po poem by Oliver surprised me and it shouldn't have ...

Jim, the "with some difficulty" phrase is really when the hook takes ... my second time through, I actually laughed out loud, totally inappropriately, but at the conjurer's trick and not the image/idea ...

Charles, it's like the little bit of grit in the craw, being worked into a pearl ... do oysters have craws?