April 15, 2013

NPM 2013 - O is for Oliver

There are many poets that celebrate nature in their poetry but few that I have read live and breathe every moment of this celebration like Mary Oliver does. 

Her poems prompt us to revel in this magnificence too with many poems having aphorisms like: 

"Instructions for living a life: pay attention. be astonished. tell about it." 
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"
"Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift."
"Listen—are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?" 
"Let me keep my distance, always, from thosewho think they have the answers.Let me keep company always with those who say"Look!" and laugh in astonishment,and bow their heads."
She celebrates all things in the world around us through her poems – animate (animals, birds, flowers, leaves, blades of grass,…) and inanimate (rocks & stones, rivers, mountains,…) too! Like the poet Maxine Kumin wrote, Mary Oliver is our “indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Oliver herself has written about how nature is an “antidote to confusion” and language a “tool of consciousness” and in this world, perhaps that is what we need sometimes.

Here then are five of her poems.... starting with one of my early favorites:

In Blackwater Woodsby Mary Oliver 
Look, the treesare turningtheir own bodiesinto pillars
of light,are giving off the richfragrance of cinnamonand fulfillment,
the long tapersof cattailsare bursting and floating away overthe blue shoulders
of the ponds,and every pond,no matter what itsname is, is
nameless now.Every yeareverythingI have ever learned
in my lifetimeleads back to this: the firesand the black river of losswhose other side
is salvation,whose meaningnone of us will ever know.To live in this world
you must be ableto do three things:to love what is mortal;to hold it
against your bones knowingyour own life depends on it;and, when the time comes to let it go,to let it go. 


by Mary Oliver 
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It's like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.


by Mary Oliver

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

chamber of commerce

but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.
The Swan
by Mary Oliver

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?

Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

And last but not least, from her 2010 book of poem, Evidence.

I want to write something so simply
by Mary Oliver  
I want to write something
so simply
about love
or about pain
that even
as you are reading
you feel it
and as you read
you keep feeling it
and though it be my story
it will be common,
though it be singular
it will be known to you
so that by the end
you will think—
no, you will realize—
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart
had been saying.

I am yet to read her early poems (and there are two collected volumes for that) but I've read and enjoyed all her books since 2006 - Thirst; Our World, with photographs by her partner, Molly Cook; The Truro Bear and Other Adventures; Red Bird, Evidence, Swan, and the most recent one,  A Thousand Mornings, which I perused through just 2 weeks ago. So, most of the poems above are from these latter books. For her earlier poems, go read  New and Selected Poems, Vol 1 (1992) and New and Selected Poems, Vol 2 (2005). 

And then there's a lovely poem about a swan in my post about Mary Oliver from the 2011 NPM celebrations. 

P.S. She has been ill and I hope she lives through this challenge and enjoys some more years of joy and celebration (and some more years of poetry for all of us.) But when the time comes, she will have left behind many many pages for us to read and re-read..... and for that I am thankful. In her own words, from a poem called '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.
We should all be able to say that when it comes time for us to leave... even if we don't indulge in the kind of "prayer without words" that she indulges in! (See the poetry reading at the video below to see what I mean! That's the kind of rapture she gets into, thanks to nature!)

Update: I had two choices for today. Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds. I chose the former because I've read more of her poetry. Then just now I hear that today, Sharon Olds won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for 2013. Thought it worthy of mention here, even if as a later edit. She won...

...for Stag's Leap, a collection of poems that resulted, as Tess Taylor wrote for NPR in late 2012, from Olds' impressions of the end of her marriage. It includes these lines:
"I show no anger but in flashes of humor,
all is courtesy and horror."
In her review, Taylor said that Stag's Leap "moves beyond Olds to offer an alphabet of grieving, to gather a shape of losing, as well as perhaps offering us some clues about beginning anew."

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