Friday, November 19, 2010

Farm Country: Mary Oliver

Farm Country

    I have sharpened my knives, I have
    Put on the heavy apron.

    Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served
    In blue willow-pattern bowls.

    I have put on my boots and opened
    The kitchen door and stepped out

    Into the sunshine.  I have crossed the lawn.
    I have entered

    The hen house.
Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a plain speaking poet, as exemplified by this early poem.   She is a perfect example of a poet who continually is writing the same poem over and over again, perhaps to a fault, but you're more likely to  hear that from her than me.  Often her poems describe direct encounters with nature, in which the narrator has a revelation or a transcendent moment or plainly, simply, is.

"Farm Country" is nature from a different approach.  More to the point, it comes round to the lesson all her finest poems teach, if by an even plainer, less circuitous route than usual.  Is it that the route hasn't been traveled before that gives her work its power and resonance?  Hardly.  She reminds us, she insists on reminding us, of what is all around us that we have simply stopped paying attention at the possible cost, without putting too fine a point on it, of our souls.

These words are ones which, in translation, Issa and Bashō most assuredly would concur.

killing a chicken--
the willow at the gate
so green
translated by David G. Lanoue

David Giannini has just dropped me a note to let me know that today, by the old Japanese calender, is Issa's death day.  So here is one of his finest pieces, his death poem:

A bath when you're born,
a bath when you die,
how stupid
translated by Robert Hass


PS  Get 2 free issues     Get 2 more free issues     Lillie poem archive

Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 76 songs
Hear all 74 at once on the the LitRock Jukebox


Anonymous said...

In the day, my immigrant maternal grandparents farmed 76 acres of broad leaf and shade grown tobacco while maintaining livestock, an orchard, vegetable gardens, five children, and yes, a hen house. My grandfather could not bring himself to kill a chicken so it was left up to my grandmother. I'm with my grandfather on this one. Bless the local grocer, and Issa's Untidy Hut. Terrific post, as always.

Charles Gramlich said...

I love that opening piece. Wow. I did not know about Mary Oliver but I'm going to be seeking her stuff out now.

Ally Malinenko said...

Mary Oliver is one of those people that I overlook because she's always right there on the shelf. I need to stop doing that. Great post Don.

Fred said...

From A Little Treasury of Haiku, trans. Peter Beilenson--

A saddening world
Flowers whose sweet blossoms must fall
As we too, alas . . .

Anonymous said...

thanks, david.

a couple commemorative ku

Issa's death day--
steam from a cup of tea
clouds my glasses

Issa's day--
the laughing buddha
points the way


L. Espenmiller said...

excellent post, Don. I've always liked and resonated with Mary Oliver's poetry. Thanks for sharing this one. Interesting that both poems mention the willow - Oliver with her willow-pattern bowl, and Issa with his green willow - both noticing or thinking of the willow as they're about to knock off the chicken. peace, L.

Anonymous said...

dear don

not david


tenzing ;]

snow on the way--
i'll let this fly stick around
another day or two

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

@Donna, we seem to be getting further and further away from what exactly our grandparents and great grandparents did, which is certainly part of the value of the Oliver poem - not so much remembrance as, think, this is the moment - what you are doing and how and why.

@Charles, very happy you liked that one. Here's a parcel more. "Wild Geese" is her most popular, and for good reason.

@Ally, just got done reading the new book by Oliver, "Swan," and it is touch and go, as with many of her books. Still, when I got done I'd marked 9 poems as worth reading over (and over) and I thought, god, if I could do 9 poems ...

@Fred, you anticipate me again, I've gotten the Little Treasury on interlibrary loan and hope to be settling in over the next week or two - thanks for this one.

@tenzing, lovely poems and even lovelier mistake! You may have been thinking of David Giannini, who I mentioned in the post and in whose electronic footsteps I follow.

@Lisa, thanks for pointing out the willow/willow, I was so busy finding an Issa chicken poem, that in my inattentiveness, I overlooked the other thread ... each and everyday I slip, I slip

And get up!

@tenzing, another find ku ... thank you.


Poet Hound said...

My father-in-law introduced me to Mary Oliver's poems and I'm sorry to say I did not take to her right away but the more of her poetry I read the more I came to enjoy her words.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

@PC, I was resistant at first myself. Even her new book, "Swan," which I just finished, I read through to page 16 before anything clicked and then clicked and clicked and clicked.

I'm going to do a session on Mary Oliver this spring for a lifelong learners group which so be interesting, indeed.


Fred said...


I found my copy while browsing the poetry section in a used bookstore. I had heard of haiku and had read a few, but really wasn't interested in them then.

The price was $2.00, so I thought I would get it and browse through it. I started reading that evening and was immediately hooked on haiku.

_A Little Treasury of Haiku_ is one of those rare life-changing books for me.

I now have two copies because my first one is starting to wear out.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Great story, Fred - I get a little lump in the throat when I think of books like that - books that I have gotten a second copy of because the first is falling apart. Somebody should collect a list of titles that people have bought for this reason.

I am enjoying Little Treasury of Haiku very much - not quite half way through. Not sure I'll be able to do a post on it this week, but maybe by the following Friday. I'll have to see.

Thanks again for the tip.