Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses and my No 2 scribble

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.

7 responses to “Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses and my No 2 scribble

  1. Much of the southern coastline of “mainland” isles Japan where there were once mangroves are now entirely coated in cement/tetrahedrons -against roiling seas and tsunamis and other adverse wet weather events. Only in Okinawa do they still exist. Part of the tourist promotion to those fabled Ryukyu isles us the chance to see real living mangroves. And thank goodness that the 20th century desires to rid parts of our own coastline from this tangled mess of growth were themselves nipped in the bud as fisheries experts pointed out their various roles including that of protecting seafood life/growth. Just a kilometre from where I live one of the inlets of the edge of the entrance channel from the Pacific Ocean into Lake Macquarie is fringed, garlanded with mangroves.


    • Hi Jim. There were lots of mangroves in swamps and riversides in my North Queensland childhood. I wouldn’t have said I loved them till I read this poem, which has lovely descriptions of them. It ends:
      So many
      and so leggy and all of them rising as if
      attempting to escape this world which, don’t
      they know it, can’t be done. ‘Are you
      trying to fly or what?’ I ask, and they
      answer back, ‘We are what we are, you
      are what you are, love us if you can.’


  2. kathyprokhovnik

    Love this Jonathan, especially because I get the Mackellar reference after a recent visit to Gunnedah. They claim ‘My Country’ as theirs (because she stayed there with friends at some stage) so they have an annual poetry competition for schoolkids (and ‘Lyrical loos’ with poem extracts on the backs of the toilet doors). The whole of My Country was printed on a pamphlet for the poetry competition and I realised I had never read the whole thing before – just a couple of the more famous stanzas. It’s not bad!


    • Hi Kathy. My favourite ‘My Country’ story comes from my previous privileged access to the School Magazine’s ancient correspondence. Someone from the Department of education once wrote to Mary Gilmore asking permission to include it in the magazine, under the impression, evidently, that it was hers. Her handwritten reply, which is now I hope kept by the department’s historian, went something like, ‘I don’t remember writing this poem, and doubt if I would ever have written anything with such crude rhythms and simple-minded imagery.’ I hope she smiled maliciously as she wrote it.


  3. Pingback: Vale Mary Oliver | Me fail? I fly!

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