Tag Archives: Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s Twenty Moons

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:

Things are    changing; things are starting to     spin, snap, fly off into    afternoon. Oh and ooh   come whistling out of the perished mouth   of the grass, as things   turn soft, boil back   into substance and hue. As everything,   forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:   I too love oblivion why not it is full   of second chances. Now,   hiss the bright curls of the leaves. Now!   booms the muscle of the wind.

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.

Vale Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver died yesterday, aged 83. I’ve only blogged about one of her books, here, and didn’t say much about it. But every time I’ve read one of her poems – in a book lying around in a conference centre or picked from a friend’s bookshelf – she’s struck a nerve. Someone on Twitter begged the world not to straightwash her, so I’ll mention that she wrote sweet poems to her same-gender lovers.

I hope her estate will be OK with me sharing this, which was published i 2006, when she was the age I am now.

When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

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.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses and my No 2 scribble

Mary Oliver, Blue Horses (Penguin 2014)

20141106-122028.jpg 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 understood to indicate esteem.

This is old-woman poetry. Oliver isn’t out to prove anything. This is frm ‘I don’t want to be demure or respectable’:

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 ever 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.