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
then drowned as he reached for the moon's reflection.
Well, probably each of us, at some time, has been
Not the moon, though.Mary Oliver
Thinking of Swirler
One day I went out
--into a wonderful
------it was fall,
the pine trees were brushing themselves
--against the sky
---as though they were painting it,
who was alive then,
--was walking slowly
---through the green bog,
as thick as an ox,
----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
------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
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--
over green fieldsIssa
translated by David Lanoue