Mary Oliver, Twenty Moons (Back Bay Books 1979)
The first thing Mary Oliver said to me, it must have been in the mid 1990s, was this:
You do not have to be good.
That’s the opening of ‘Wild Geese’, from her book Dream Work (1985). Having completely grabbed my attention, she went on:
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
They are words I wish every Irish-style Catholic of my generation, and possibly of all generations, could have heard in their childhood. There’s even more to the poem. You can watch her read the whole thing on YouTube.
When I heard last Friday that she had died, aged 83, I made a little pilgrimage to Gleebooks and bought Twelve Moons, one of four books by her on the shelves, of which one (Blue Horses) I already own, another (Devotions) was too huge for the moment, and the third (Dog Songs) probably too tummy-scratching.
Twelve Moons was Mary Oliver’s fourth book of poetry, first published half a decade before she won the Pulitzer (and before ‘Wild Geese’ was published). It’s a terrific book. Reading it now, I’m interested in how it fits with the New York Times headline of 22 January, ‘Mary Oliver, 83, Prize-Winning Poet of the Natural World, Is Dead.’ In what way, I found myself asking, was she a poet of the natural world? (I don’t disagree with the description. After the lines quoted above, ‘Wild Geese’ goes on to talk about flocks of wild geese with their harsh cries.)
There’s a lot of the ‘natural world’ in this book: twelve very different moon poems; deer, horses, sharks; rain, snow, sunshine; crows, owls, bears and trees; mussels, snakes, turtles and stones. But they’re not generally ‘nature poems’ in any easy, Fotherington-Thomas way (‘Hullo clouds, hullo sky!’). At times, they seem to emerge from sustained, quiet observation of the living environment; at others, from a sharp moment of empathy (as in ‘The Black Snake’, where the speaker picks up a dead snake from the road and puts it back in the bushes). And though I’d say Mary Oliver is a life-affirming poet, there’s a lot of death: as an osteopath once said to me, ‘The body naturally seeks equilibrium, which is part of the healing process, but of course there’s also equilibrium in death.’ There’s that, and also the notion of life as precious but brief.
As is my custom, let me look fairly closely at a single poem. ‘Last Days’, on page 51, is not necessarily my favourite in the book, but it’s short enough to show you in a single jpeg, it does interesting things with ‘the natural world’, and – happily, given my love of the form – it’s a sonnet. Here it is:
This is more enigmatic than most of Mary Oliver’s poems. In fact, it’s a teaser poem – not naming its subject until its last word, but describing its effects as if they originate elsewhere, and also throwing in a good dose of misdirection.
The misdirection begins with the title, an apparent reference to the End Times, when life as we know it finishes in the twinkling of an eye. The first words, echoing W B Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming‘ – ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ – lead us further down that path. Perhaps one expects a poem about environmental disaster.
But the tone is too jaunty for that: ‘things are starting to / spin, snap, fly off’ doesn’t exactly feel like doomsday! The enjambments in those first lines, snapping phrases in two, capture the feel of all that disruption, but in an almost comical way, and it’s hard to see ‘the blue sleeve of the long / afternoon’ as a place of dread.
Then comes the sound. By the time the oh and ooh whistle from the grass’s mouth, the puzzle is only nominally still in place: wind is clearly involved. So when things ‘turn soft / boil back into substance and hue’, we know what is going on. Serendipitously, as I type this the gum trees and jacaranda outside my windows are boiling away, so what the eye sees is mainly colour and movement, no detail, just ‘substance and hue’.
Broadening out from ‘things’, the poem now speaks of ‘everything’: as in the Sleeping Beauty story, everything shakes off the enchantment that has made it inanimate.
Everything whispers, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’. Where the early enjambments mimic the snapping-off effects of the wind, here the lack of punctuation evokes the way everything is in motion. Then the final exhilarated cry of ‘Now!’ Who hasn’t stood in a strong wind and felt that exhilaration? And the wind is named at last as the great sayer of ‘Now!’.
So the poem isn’t about the end of the world after all. It’s just the wind, and not necessarily even a dangerous wind.
But what to make of that whisper, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’? The poem rushed us past it, even though on my first reading it was the word ‘oblivion’ that snagged my attention. What does it mean here? Why ‘too’ – who else loves oblivion?
In most contexts I would take ‘oblivion’ to mean something like death, or at least the death of the mind – so a word that chimes nicely with the End Times expectations generated by the title. But the immediate context suggests a completely different meaning: ‘oblivion’ is the state of forgetting, of having one’s attention fully in the present moment, the Now.
And why ‘too’? One possibility that suggests itself is that it’s the poem’s speaker who loves oblivion; that she isn’t just recording what she sees, though nor simply projecting her mental state onto it, but in describing the weather she is also describing the effect it has on her emotional state. And so back to the poem’s title. It’s not Last Days as in End Times, so much as the end of something, no longer stuck, enchanted, brooding over the past, but shaken into the present moment, where there is a possibility of new beginnings.
Please excuse me for hammering away at this small poem, but it’s helped me to articulate how I understand Mary Oliver to be a ‘poet of the natural world’: she’s not a meticulous describer of natural phenomena, but she writes out of her relationship to them. It’s a two-way relationship.