The death of Mary Oliver, a poet who addresses the carpe diem of Nature and the looming, warning memento mori, has prompted me to buy a copy of her poems. I know lots of people (such as the wonderful Maria Popova) are ahead of me in knowing her work and loving it, and knowing her (which I will never do), so this is really an exploration of a first reading her poems. I had seen some of her work before. I knew The Black Walnut Tree with its “whip-crack of the mortgage” and Starfish (“learning little by little to love our only world”) and met Wild Geese yesterday, although I had been given a photo containing the phrase “You do not have to be good” by Jon in the Spring.
The poem itself is astonishing, all the more so when Popova provides us with a sound recording of Mary Oliver reading it:
You do not have to be good.
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.
I find it astonishing that she manages here a division of mind and body (“the soft animal of your body”) without violence or separation. Maybe I can love that soft animal, I think… and then the challenge to move beyond comfort:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting…
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish I could do all the things that I can do
And though I’m way over due
I’d be startin’ anew….
in giving me a kick in the depressive pants.
And this is the first thing I want to say in praise of Mary Oliver: she has, in among the imagery of the “floor of darkness” under tall trees and the stories of sadness and loss, a great hope, “Blades from the fields of Spring.”
She is also a great writer of the poetic punchline. Again, I want to refer to another writer. Just as her hope, her persistent “happy tongue” reminds me of another voice, so her form makes me think of R S Thomas, and
knee, waiting, as at the end
of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.
She doesn’t always do it, of course, any more than R S Thomas. Neither of them are cheesy hacks with a simple trick to end a poem. Her ending couplet to The Summer Day might end up as her most quoted line
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
– but I rather hope it doesn’t, even though it is as clear as a silver trumpet, since to be known just for these punchlines would be to lose the clear call of the Wild Geese, “high in the clear blue air,” or the “shower of white fire” of the egrets, unruffled in a pond.
So what have I gained today, exploring this selection of poems? Why the urge to link them to things already known?
I think it’s because, when faced with a new author, I feel the need for landmarks. With Garner’s writing for adults, these turned out to be physical; Anne and I going to Alderley, then Mat and I going there on our first trip and then on to Ludchurch and Thursbitch. With Cooper, although there was familiarity with the Chilterns, it was much more knowing where she sat in a rich tradition of myth, and especially of myth revisited as C S Lewis attempted in so many of his books. And with Le Guin? More of a challenge, but I think it has to do with the way I saw not so much a precursor to Harry Potter (it seems a real nefas to describe Ged in those terms!) as a fictional representation of the work of Alan Watts.
But this is beginning to look a bit silly. I think many of us do this in our own way, and I won’t labour the point.
So what I have “got from Mary Oliver” this afternoon? That she is as inspirational as Nina Simone and as masterful as R S Thomas? That would be one set of things, but if that’s all it was, it would be a pretty poor pay back for the book I just bought. Reading someone for the first time – maybe reading someone whose work feels like it chimes with your own psyche or whose skill you can admire – also brings delights in other ways, and for me today it has been the richness of language and natural imagery. Perhaps it is best exemplified in The Night Traveler, a poem so chock-full of wonderful images (“a doctor/On his way to a worried house;” “…bits of wilderness;” “It will nuzzle your face, cold-nosed,/Like a small white wolf”) and puzzles around symbol and metaphor that it really deserves a slow read, and without any more melling on from me:
Passing by, he could be anybody:A thief, a tradesman, a doctorOn his way to a worried house.But when he stops at your gate,Under the room where you lie half-asleep,You know it is not just anyone —It is the Night Traveler.
You lean your arms on the sillAnd stare down. But all you can seeAre bits of wilderness attached to him —Twigs, loam and leaves,Vines and blossoms. Among thoseYou feel his eyes, and his handsLifting something in the air.
He has a gift for you, but it has no name.It is windy and woolly.He holds it in the moonlight, and it singsLike a newborn beast,Like a child at Christmas,Like your own heart as it tumblesIn love’s green bed.You take it, and he is gone.
All night — and all your life, if you are willing —It will nuzzle your face, cold-nosed,Like a small white wolf;It will curl in your palmLike a hard blue stone;It will liquefy into a cold poolWhich, when you dive into it,Will hold you like a mossy jaw.A bath of light. An answer.