Mary Oliver, Blue Horses (Penguin 2014)
In his justly-praised eulogy for Gough Whitlam, Noel Pearson repeatedly used the phrase ‘this old man’ as a term of high honour. Like Diana Athill, Dorothy Hewett, Jennifer Maiden and any number of others, Mary Oliver makes me wish passionately that we could say ‘this old woman’ and have it similarly understood to indicate esteem.
This is old-woman poetry. Oliver isn’t out to prove anything. In ‘I don’t want to be demure or respectable’, she says:
I’m not trying to be wise, that would be foolish.
I’m just chattering.
She’s not even out to offer obvious value for money. For $28 you get 78 pages and almost every second page is blank. But every word feels just right. The poems are personal and deeply felt, but nothing personal in a way that would be embarrassing to read on a poster on a bus. Most of them feel as if they have been around forever, or at least should have been. The recurring mode is celebration – of a new love, of connection to living things, of rhyme, of yoga lessons, of life and even of sickness and death, though in their cases it’s more a mature reconciliation than actual celebration. She stops short of being religious, as in ‘Angels’:
I don’t care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It’s
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.
Moving on to my own November task, I was struck by the poem ‘The Mangroves’, in which the speaker, who is living ‘in a warm place’ realised she has trouble loving mangroves the way she loves the black oaks and the pines of her cooler home. It’s not Oliver’s doing that oaks and pines are ‘normal’ to mainstream English literature and mangroves are exotic, but the idea of normal is inevitably there, so:
Sonnet No 2: In response to Mary Oliver’s ‘The Mangroves’
It’s fall, November, New York City.
Leaves fall, just like they do in song,
in movies, poems and all those pretty
paintings from Art History. Long
we’ve read bare ruined choirs
follow on bright autumn’s fires.
I’m coming over all Mackellar,
a not-your-field-and-coppice feller.
My heart belongs to smooth angophora,
to leaves that glisten all year round,
to roots four feet above the ground
and messy pneumatophora.
All trees are lovely when you look –
less so those growing by the book.