Tag Archives: Covid-19

500 people: Weeks 21–23

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

In spite of what the papers say, the citizens of Sydney have been taking this lockdown seriously. We hardly go out. and when we do we stay clear of strangers. My project has wilted on its stem, so much that I have very little to report for the last three weeks, 4–24 July.

Today, when we were on a long walk that took us to Glebe Point Road by way of Victoria Park we noticed a large police presence and though something must be up. we passed a group of about five people in a loose procession behind a man carrying a sign that said something about Bill Gates and hoaxes and genes being fried: I almost spoke to him, but didn’t see how any conversation could be even remotely amicable. (Having seen a tweet that described the demonstrators as putting the concerns of straight white people above the safety of everyone else, I should mention that this group of people weren’t white.)

There have, however, been some moments of warm connection with strangers.

  1. Thursday 15 July, walking in an unfamiliar part of Sydney Park, where a number of alarmingly fit looking people were exercising on outdoor gym equipment, generally keeping a safe distance from one another, I watched one man holding parallel bars at waist height, then lift himself up off the ground until his legs were stretching vertically above him, then come back down to earth, slowly, with extraordinary control. He looked around, pleased with himself but not particularly expecting to have been noticed. Having just about drawn level on the footpath near him, I said, ‘I’m impressed.’ He gave a gratified smile. It occurred to me that this is a perk of age: I wouldn’t have dreamed of commenting like that even 20 years ago, but coming from a 70-something pushing a stroller, my remark was obviously straightforwardly friendly and admiring, no other agenda.
  2. Friday 16 July, as took our afternoon exercise by the Cooks River, my lockdown hair acted as a facilitator of human contact. A woman jogger with flaming red hair shouted to us as she drew near, ‘Your hair with the sun behind it makes you look like an angel!’ (See photo below.) This is not the first time my hair when grown longish has attracted comment but I was telling the truth when I shouted to her retreating back, ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my hair.’ She stopped for a moment and called, ‘Bye, angel!’ (For remote context: Roughly 30 years ago I was at a school basketball game when a young Aboriginal boy approached me out of the blue and asked, ‘Are you a mad professor?’ then ran away cackling.)
Me looking angelic?

3. Saturday morning, on our pre-breakfast constitutional (aka permitted exercise outing) we passed a man with a small girl wearing a pink tutu. The girl was engrossed in a book. It wasn’t a children’s book and she wasn’t reading it, but focusing intently on its cover. As we approached, the man said, appropriately enough, ‘Look up, don’t walk into people.’ She ignored him, and as we made our way around her, I said, ‘Never look up from a book if you can help it.’ He said, ‘It’s a good one, this one.’

4. Saturday, we had stopped off on that walk to buy bread. I was standing for a moment with the Bourke Street Bakery paper bag under my arm while the Emerging Artist retraced our steps to deposit a found bag of dog poo in a bin. Another couple out for a walk passed me. The woman called, ‘Ah, I see you’ve just bought some bread for breakfast.’ I confirmed that she saw right. (These moments feel inconsequential, but they increment to counter the innumerable moments when we might as well be blocks of stone, or worse, to each other as we pass).

5. Wednesday 21 July, mid-afternoon, the Emerging Artist and I were heading out for a walk before it got even colder. In the near-deserted park, we passed a woman with two dogs, a black and white collie and another, which i learned is a blue merle collie. I was struck by the dogs’ precisely timed, synchronised movements as they waited for her to throw the ball for them, and then by the way the blue merle leapt in the air with a double twist, apparently for no reason except to show off. I stopped, and expressed my admiration from a Covid-safe distance. ‘Are they trained for agility?’ I asked. ‘That one competes,’ she said, pointing to the black-and-white dog, ‘ but she,’ the other, ‘is too young just yet.’ She must have scores of people stopping to ask about her dogs, but she seemed perfectly happy to chat about them, without for a moment leaving them hanging out for the next instruction. When one of them looked as if it was going to come our way in search of affection, a sharp ‘Eh, eh, eh!’ had her turning on her heel and back to work. There was nothing insincere about my admiration for those two.

6. Wednesday, perhaps on that same exercise outing, we were passed by a woman with two small children on tricycles, maybe three and four. One of them said to her, as if offering a solution to a problem, ‘You could buy us something’. I caught her eye and she rolled hers.

7. Saturday, on our exercise outing, on our way home from the non-encounter in Glebe, I stepped off the footpath to allow a woman pushing a stroller to pass. We did the customary mutual acknowledgements, muffled by our masks. A little later, as she stopped to fix something on the stroller, we passed her, and then the sequence repeated itself. The next time she passed us, I said, ‘We keep doing this.’ She looked surprised to be spoken to, and asked, in a strong European accent, me to repeat what I’d said. I repeated myself. Probably still not understanding what I’d said, she gestured to a block of flats up ahead and said, ‘I live there, nearly home,’ and as she drew ahead of us, gave a cheery wave goodbye. I think this demonstrates that the content of what one says in a brief encounter matters a lot less than tone of voice.

8. Saturday, on the same outing, we passed a small former corner store in Angel Street Newtown with a photo exhibition in its windows. A woman was standing near the windows looking through some art books on top of a rubbish bin. I stopped and asked from a safe distance if she was the photographer. No, she said, but she loved the photos. And we chatted very briefly about the way this corner store often has interesting things on display.

Running total is 199. I’m still aiming for 500, but not with a time limit.

500 people: Week Twenty

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

As predicted, opportunities for chats with new people this week have been few, if you don’t count knowing glances shared between people wearing masks in the street even though they’re only mandated indoors. To make matters worse, grandfatherly duty was cancelled because Ruby had been contact-traced and was in isolation. But there have been some chats.

  1. Sunday 27 June: we have new neighbours in one of the two other flats that opens onto our small landing. They’ve been here a week or so, but today for the first tine we both emerged onto the landing at the same time. We swapped names; I made a point of asking the name of the little boy who was enjoying the challenge of the stairs. They’ve only been in Australia for a couple of weeks. I expressed mild surprise that they had been allowed into the country but not, I hope, in a way that suggested disapproval. I said ‘Welcome’ more times than was cool, and practised a little Portuguese (‘Bom dia‘ to be precise).
  2. Monday, I had a bone density test at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The wonderful nurse who did the test said that as it didn’t count as essential my appointment would have been cancelled, but the latest lockdown announcement was made on the weekend, and I was first cab off the rank on Monday morning so turned up before they could tell me not to come. When she introduced herself it was by a first name that differed from the one on her name tag: the tag name indicated complex non-Anglo heritage; the other, as she explained, was given to her in Year 5 at school and she embraced it as straight-up Aussie. She told me bits of her family story, and generally filled the clinical visit with human interaction.
  3. Tuesday afternoon, visiting the new Harry Hartog bookshop in Marrickville Metro, I asked the shop assistant about her name tag, which gave her pronouns (yes, this is the 2020s), her unofficial pastime (I won’t tell you the actual pastime, but let’s say it could have been ‘House sharer’), and the kinds of books she’s interested in. This led to a wide ranging conversation about the bookshop, the amount of attention lavished on decor (it shows, and it works), the special islands of imported remainders. After quite a while, in which the Emerging Artist and I bought a number of books, I realised that I’d read and remembered everything from her name tag except her actual name. We swapped names before the EA and I went on our way.
  4. Tuesday, a couple of seconds later, I had a brief but similarly amiable conversation with the other shop assistant who, in spite of having a beautifully embroidered moustache on her mask, also nominated her pronouns as ‘she/her’. The EA says these young women probably saw me as a needy and garrulous old white man. I choose to believe otherwise.
  5. Wednesday evening, I was putting our recycling into the communal bins to the accompaniment of Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens chatting on about laughter. As I was moving huge chunks of styrofoam from a recycling bin to a landfill bin, another inhabitant of our complex came into the room. I turned the podcast off, we introduced ourselves and had the kind of awkward yet almost-intimate conversation you can only have when both people have their hands full of garbage.
  6. Thursday, for at least the hundredth time, I walked past a black plastic fishpond in one of the tiny front yards on a busy street near my place. I often take a moment to enjoy the big healthy golden fish, who provide a splash of colour and elegance in the otherwise fairly dreary street. This day, a man was sitting in the afternoon sun and reading in a cane chair on the front veranda. I stopped to say g’day and say how much pleasure his fish gave me. I mentioned that we have a smaller pond on our balcony, with much smaller fish. ‘They’ll grow,’ he said.
  7. Saturday, on an exercise break in the alarmingly busy Sydney Park, where many people were masked and most were kind of keeping their distance, we passed a family group who were collectively training a puppy. ‘Sit … sit … sit,’ the woman said as she and the rest of the group moved away from the anxious but stationary puppy. I made an admiring exclamation as I passed, and the spell was broken: the puppy bolted to its human. Much merriment all round.

Running total is 191.

500 people: Week Nineteen

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

As I mentioned last week, I hadn’t been paying attention, so this week starts with an encounter that rightfully belongs in last Saturday’s post. It also includes a slantwise account of an event that could have been the subject of its own blog post.

  1. Wednesday 16 June, near the new section of Marrickville Metro shopping centre, we passed a young man standing on a windy corner holding up a sign advertising a major supermarket chain. As we waited for the light to change, I said hello, and then asked how long he was standing there. Emboldened by his readiness to answer that question, I asked how much he was paid. He told me an hourly rate that removed any remaining misgiving I have about what I charge for proofreading.
  2. Sunday 20 June, walking in Sydney Park in the morning, I was amused by the behaviour of a young dog, I asked one of its human companions what breed it was, venturing my guess that it was a border collie–blue cattle dog cross. She was an Australian shepherd and its owners were unashamedly besotted with her.
  3. Sunday afternoon, I attended a small gathering and walk to honour Martin Johnston, an Australian poet who died at this time of year 31 years ago (photos of the event below). The event was organised by Nadia Wheatley, Martin’s literary executor, and Vivienne Lathem, his step-daughter and copyright holder, at the Garden Lounge Creative Space in Newtown. It was a lovely occasion and I hope it becomes an annual tradition. Unusually for a poetry reading, I had warm encounters with a number of people who are new to me. First, the long term partner of an old friend: he is a retired English and History teacher, and we bonded over the joys of travel in retirement, among other things.
  4. Sunday, our host at the Creative Lounge provided hot drinks. A woman who arrived in company of a friend of mine said something about having a hot chocolate, and announced more or less to everyone that she had discovered the joys of chocolate with added chilli. My ears pricked up. We were introduced a little later, but our brief exchange about the joys of chilli and chocolate is what has stayed with me.
  5. Sunday, at the same event, I had the honour of reading one of Martin’s poems (‘Drinking Sappho Brand Ouzo’, the twelfth poem at this link). I asked a Greek-speaking audience member for help with the pronunciation of a Greek word. I did this because, though I did need the help, it made room for him to volunteer that the word – rododaktulos, evidently brododactulos in Lesbos – was from Homer, thereby saving me from providing that possibly redundant information to the audience. Later, I apologised for exploiting his presence in that way, but he didn’t seem to feel it was exploitative.
  6. Sunday, a little later, as we strolled through locations from Martin’s novel, Cicada Gambit, I chatted to a man in a baseball cap who had been staying quietly in the background. He knew Martin after I did, and I asked if perhaps he knew him at SBS, where he worked for many years. No, he said, Martin had ‘succeeded [him] in the affections of X—’. He had a number of colourful anecdotes, and we grieved lightly over Martin’s early death and the role alcohol played in it.
  7. Sunday, as most of the other people were settling down to snacks and drinks in the Bank Hotel and I was taking my leave, among the people I said hello-goodbye to was Julian Neylan, the Joycean enthusiast behind Bloomsday Sydney. He had read beautifully from Martin’s novel. We had a pleasant chat.
  8. Monday morning early I went to the local shop to buy milk for breakfast, and forgot to take a mask – they were made mandatory indoors in our local government area on Sunday evening. I apologised at the check-out. The young woman there said, ‘I don’t like masks anyway.’ I did my bit for the common good, saying, ‘Me neither, but we need to do it.’
  9. Tuesday, back to my regular sauna after a couple of weeks’ absence, and sure enough there were some sweet encounters. Well, two. A young man – I’d guess in his late 20s – came in and commented that reading a book was a good thing to do in the sauna. I said some people thought differently (see previous post, paragraph 2). Then…
  10. (Tuesday) … his friend joined us moaning performatively. It turned out he had a terrible hangover. I tuned out for the conversation about drinking and its aftermath that followed, but a little later they were talking about money. One of them said he was being paid $9.50 an hour. The other said, ‘How can they do that?’ I re-entered the conversation: ‘Because they can.’ Then I trotted out a boomer reminiscence: ‘My first full time job I was paid $60 a week. Then I joined a union and was paid an award wage of $120.’ (To be honest I don’t know if that second figure is accurate, but I do remember feeling guilty about taking the increased amount from my small-business employer.) ‘I spent that much on beer last night.’ ‘Yes, but I remember at that time being shocked when I was charged a dollar for a beer in a flash club, and’ – this is the one that really got their attention – ‘I could buy a packet of cigarettes for 42 cents.’
  11. Wednesday, walking back from buying bread in Marrickville, I met a man who was rubbing his back against a street sign. As anyone would, I smiled as I passed. He explained that his back was itching terribly after a session in the gym. I told him he reminded me of cows from my childhood, rubbing their backs on low branches.
  12. Friday in the sauna, or rather in the dressing room after my sauna, to avoid having my wet bathers drip allover the floor and bench while I was changing, I left them on a hook near the shower. Once back in street clothes, I was about to go get them when a chap emerged from the shower area and told me I’d left them there. I have no idea how he knew they were mine … I guess we all do a lot more observing of each other than we make obvious.
  13. Saturday morning, after a substantial shopping trip to the local behemoth supermarket, I went back for a quic visit to the ATM, and forgot my mask. This time, there was a young woman on the door blocking access to the maskless. I pleaded that I was going about 10 metres into the centre for less than two minutes. She relented and let me through, but warned me that the centre was full of police cracking down on the mask-noncompliant. I waved to her cheerily two minutes later as I left.
  14. Saturday at about 3.30, I went back to buy wine for the Emerging Artist. (I don’t drink alcohol, but I’m the fetch-and-carry person.) Our suburb was about to join the rest of greater Sydney in lockdown in a couple of hours, and not only were shelves of toilet paper bare, but the red wine shelves were looking pretty sparse, though there were plenty of bottles of the $4 merlot. On my way out with bottles of stuff I suspected the EA would turn her nose up at – not the aforementioned $4 merlot – I spent a little moment chatting to the masked woman who rang up my purchase. The alcohol shop, she said, had been very busy all day.

Running total is now 184. Now that we’re in lockdown, I expect there will be slim pickings next week.

A cautionary tale

There hadn’t been any community transmission of Covid-19 in New South Wales for a number of days. The Premier was warning against complacency. In our part of the inner west there were still plenty of masks in evidence, and at the supermarket we politely gave each other wide berths. But the virus is still out there. Here’s a timeline of what happened next in my family (no trigger warning needed):

Sunday 4 October: The Emerging Artist and I had yum cha with four other people. Two people turned up in masks. We all used the hand sanitiser on arrival. When we were seated, in a small private room because that’s what was available, the person in our group who is statistically most likely to have serious illness if she’s infected asked for sanitiser and wiped down the table and her chair. There was some mild eye-rolling. We had a pleasant lunch.

Monday 5 October: With a great sense of liberation and celebration, the Emerging Artist and I had dinner at friends’ house. We ate roast chicken, just four of us, and spent a very pleasant evening catching up on each other’s lives, and laughing a lot.

Tuesday 6 October: One of the people from Sunday’s yum cha – call him Alfredo – spent a couple of hours at his work in close contact with a student, helping her to use some complex equipment. He gave her his mobile number so she could phone for help the next day when she was to use the equipment. Unknown to him (and possibly her), the student’s mother was being tested for Covid while they were meeting.

Wednesday 6 October: The student learned in the morning that her mother had tested positive. She got tested and that night at nine o’clock got word that she too was positive. She immediately phoned Alfredo to let him know. He was the only person she had had contact with at his workplace.

Thursday 7 October: Alfredo drew up a list of everyone he had spent time with at work on Tuesday and since, and told them the story. They got themselves tested and did the self-isolation thing. He also called us early in the morning to let us know.

The Emerging Artist and I were tested late morning – no waiting, friendly people doing the job, and a horrible sensation in the nose. We were grandparenting that day, and as Alfredo had visited our granddaughter and her family on Sunday before the yum cha, we had her tested too – and her parents did it separately. We assumed that Alfredo’s exposure happened after we’d seen him, but no one was absolutely sure who was infected when. All the others from yum cha were also tested, and went into isolation pending results.

On Thursday night, the contact tracers phoned to tell Alfredo that he was regarded as a ‘close contact’, and that he should be tested. He told them he was ahead of them. They said that, as a close contact, even if his test came back negative he was to self-isolate for another ten days and then be tested again. That is to say, it took the contact tracers well over 24 hours to contact him, which I would have thought was time for him to do plenty of spreading if he was infected. They didn’t ever contact us.

Friday 8 October: A little after 6 in the morning, the Emerging Artist and I received text messages saying no trace of Covid was found in our samples or our granddaughter’s. Alfredo, the granddaughter’s parents, and the other Yum Cha-ers got text messages on Friday evening saying they too were negative. Alfredo is still in strict isolation, but the rest of us are back to Sydney-Covid-normal.

It’s sobering to realise that if the timing of those events had been just a little different, this could have been a story to make us roll our eyes in a whole other direction.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night

The NSWPLA night used to be a grand affair. Long before my time there was a bread-roll throwing affair when Morris West droned on too long in his acceptance speech. I got to be on the free list one year, then coughed up good money for a number of years after that, and one year I got to be the plus one of my shortlisted niece. It became less fun when it changed from being a full-blown dinner to a drinks and powerpoint affair, but I still followed it, at least on Twitter. (I dutifully blogged the event for quite a while, and if you really want to, you can plough through my blog posts for 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017).

This year, thanks to the Great Leveller, SARS-Cov2, it was again possible to attend the whole event without stirring from home or spending a cent.

So here’s how it went:

After an elegant introduction by John Vallance, Chief Librarian, speaking to us from an empty Mitchell Library, President of the Library Council George Souris spoke from his home and introduced Gladys Berejiklian, who somehow found time off from crisis-management to record a short message. John Vallance then announced the winners without any frills apart from little speeches from a range of relevant politicians:

Multicultural NSW Award went to The Pillars by Peter Polites (Hachette Australia). Peter did a to-camera piece expressing gratitude to, among other things, his publisher’s bowties.

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting: Counting and Cracking, S Shakthidharan and auxiliary writer Eamon Flack. The writer, the second from Western Sydney: ‘This award helps to weave this little story from Western Sydney into the tapestry of all the great Australian stories.’ Eamon Flack used his platform to contrast the ‘neglect and carelessness’ of current art policy with the years of policy that enabled Counting and Cracking to happen.

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting: joint winners The Cry, Episode 2, Jacqueline Perske (Synchronicity Films), and Missing, Kylie Boltin (SBS). Kylie Boltin dedicated the award to her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother died yesterday.

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: Ella and the Ocean, Lian Tanner, Jonathan Bentley (Allen & Unwin). Both author and illustrator spoke. She spoke of starting the book twelve years ago and then leaving it in the folder marked ‘Abject Failures’ for years. He, a humble illustrator: ‘Thank you for choosing me.’

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: Lenny’s Book of Everything, Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin). Karen said, ‘I want to use this platform to thank readers everywhere who continue to buy books in these times. I want to thank everyone who supports the arts.’

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness, Peter Boyle (Vagabond Press). Peter Boyle paid tribute to his late partner Debora Bird Rose (herself a great writer).

Indigenous Writers’ Prize: The White Girl, Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press). Tony Birch gave a shout out to ‘every Blackfella across Australia who is writing’.

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction: from 136 entries, the winner was Tiberius With a Telephone, Patrick Mullins (Scribe Publications), a book about William McMahon. Patrick Mullins, looking scarily young, acknowledged his debt to writers and journalists whose work was important to his, and to the many people he interviewed.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Real Differences, SL LIM (Transit Lounge). SL LIM looked even younger, with pink hair and a soft toy, and plugged her coming book, which (I think I heard correctly) calls for the end of the family.

Fiction (Christina Stead Award): The Yield, Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House). Tara June Winch spoke of the centrality of language to human life. ‘It is a sacred thing,’ she said, in Wiradjuri. The Yield also won the People’s Choice Award and the Book of the Year. Tara June Winch got to speak again, and spoke of her esteem and fellow feeling for the other writers having a hard time just now. She asked the Federal Government to treat ‘our sector’ as our families do. ‘We can’t tell you the story of what is happening to our country now if the only thing on our minds is how to afford the next week’s rent.’ She hopes that our First Languages will be included in our schools’ curriculum.

That was it. It turns out that though I’d read a couple of the shortlisted books, I hadn’t read a single one of the winners, and had seen only one of the performances – the absolutely stunning Counting and Cracking.

You can watch the whole ceremony at:

I think of Mierle Laderman Ukeles

I’ve been thinking of Mierle Laderman Ukeles a lot in recent weeks. At the supermarket checkout, passing the post deliverer in the street, receiving a hand-delivered book from Gleebooks, putting the garbage out for collection, seeing a childcare centre that has stayed open, and especially when being tested for Covid–19 by a young man in a mask and a blue gown several sizes too big for him, I feel the urge to say, ‘Thank you for keeping us alive,’ and think of her.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles {Wikipedia entry here) has been the unsalaried artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation since the late 1970s. I first heard of her when the Emerging Artist was doing her MFA and regaling me with stories of public art projects. One of them was Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation. In this performance art project, she spent eleven months in 1979–1980 visiting each of the New York Sanitation Department’s districts and shaking hands with every worker who would accept her handshake, roughly 8500 of them. She looked each worker in the eye and said, ‘Thank you for keeping New York City alive.’

The conversations didn’t stop there – she also listened to the workers, and documented their personal stories. There are some wonderful photos (for example, here, here, here and here).

Plenty of people have commented that in Covid-19 times the poorly paid, low-esteem jobs are being recognised as essential and offered more respect if not better remuneration. Artists help us make sense of our times. Mierle Laderman Ukeles did this major performance 40 years ago: it speaks directly to our circumstances now.

Mary Oliver’s House of Light

Mary Oliver, House of Light (Beacon Press 1990)

When Covid-19 was just a cloud on the northern horizon, I borrowed this book from a street library. Poems by Mary Oliver, I thought, are just the thing for the times ahead: she consistently holds out to her reader reminders of what it means to be alive and human on this planet.

Within days most street libraries had closed down.

So, what was this book that I may have risked lives to acquire?

For a start there’s a lot of death in it. Mary Oliver seems to have spent a lot of time outdoors, watching plants, birds and animals, though ‘watching’ might be too mild a word: the poems bear witness to a deep attention, contemplation, absorption.

The first poem in the collection, ‘Some Questions You Might Ask’, is a kind of manifesto: ‘Is the soul solid, like iron?’ it asks; then, ‘Who has it, and who doesn’t?’ and after considering the moose, the swan, the black bear and other animals, the poem ends:

What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about the roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

These lines dance on the edge of naffness. But they manage not to fall: they convey a strong sense of the speaker seeing these things, at least in her mind’s eye, with great clarity, and her pseudo-theological question, ‘Do animals have souls?’ comes to read as code for a joyful embrace of what she sees. That embrace is there in all these poems. Sometimes it has to be fought for, as in ‘Singapore’, which begins with the image of a woman washing something in a toilet bowl at an airport:

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labour

You can read that whole poem at this link to see for yourself where she goes from there. I think she pulls it off. (At this link, you’ll find a vehemently opposite view.)

You could think of Mary Oliver as a 20th century (and almost two decades into the 21st) devotional poet. That opening poem about souls certainly reminds me of primary classroom lessons from the nuns, and, for instance, ‘That Summer Day’ opens with a question straight out of the catechism I studied in primary school: ‘Who made the world?’ But there’s a difference. The poem doesn’t answer the question. It leaves it as an expression of awe, leaving hints of a creator God there in a take-it-or-leave-it way. The central lines of this poem are:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
But I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass

The poem is reaching for a way to express feelings that used to be attached to religious piety, but to free them from religious connotations. I think of Richard Dawkins writing about wonder without resiling even slightly from his militant atheism. Mary Oliver is similarly reclaiming wonder, though the line, ‘I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,’ carefully formulated to allow that she may know about ‘prayer’ as opposed to ‘a prayer’, indicates that she’s not oppositional, just going a different way. That poem ends:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your wild and  precious life?

It’s an exhortation, not to be virtuous (the first poem of hers I read begins ‘You do not have to be good’), but to notice what it is to be alive.

I want to talk about death, though. Not just because of Covid-19, which I think of as a curtain-raiser for the hugely destructive climate-change crisis, but because it’s an insistent theme of these poems. The nature that they so closely and lovingly observe involves ruthless killing, but the death of the speaker, or death in general, is often evoked. Here is ‘The Terns’ (click or the image to enlarge, of read the poem at this link):

In the first 18 lines, the speaker is doing her usual thing, noticing the life in the wetlands near her home. The lines are filled with a birdwatcher’s delight. Then the lines

This is a poem
about death

come as a surprising twist. At first they seem to reach back and highlight the ‘little silver fish’, whose violent death has gone almost unnoticed. But that’s not where the poem goes:

about the heart blanching
in its folds of shadows because it knows
someday it will be
the fish and the wave
and no longer itself

I don’t think she’s offering the image of the terns vanishing under the water and then coming back as an almost mediaeval allegory for death and resurrection, though you might read it that way. As I see it, with these lines, the speaker’s mood intrudes into the poem. She’s not happy, and death is on her mind. It’s her heart that she imagines blanching, and she’s the one who knows she’ll be re-absorbed into the natural world, that her consciousness will cease to be.

But then:

this is a poem about loving
the world and everything in it

We might have expected ‘This is a poem about living’, but this small surprise carries the weight of the poem. It’s not offering a vision of life after death; the terns’ diving and rising don’t symbolise death and resurrection after all. The notion of being re-absorbed into the natural world can have in it a deep joy – it’s like that Sweet Honey in the Rock song, ‘Breaths‘ (If you don’t know it, click on the link). Re-absorption isn’t about being eaten by worms in the grave, or scattered as ashes, or even planted under a tree. In death, what remains of us will continue to be part of this dynamic universe.

To love ‘the world and everything in it’, including oneself, is a completely appropriate response to such thoughts. It’s a long way from, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no evil will I fear.’ I just read on Wikipedia that Mary Oliver dealt with a lot of abuse in her childhood. I think that’s what saves her poems from being glibly Life Affirming. There’s always a sense, as in this poem, that the affirmation is not so much made as won in the face of mostly unnamed contrary forces.