8 posts tagged Mary Oliver
Something has happened
to the bread
and the wine.
They have been blessed.
The body leans forward
to receive the gift
from the priest’s hand,
then the chalice.
They are something else now
from what they were
before this began.
to see Jesus,
maybe in the clouds
or on the shore,
On the hard days
I ask myself
if I ever will.
Also there are times
my body whispers to me
that I have.
One of my friends came up with the idea that October should be Poet-ober and that every day this month, he would read one collection of poetry. One collection a day, just to enjoy poetry. I jumped on that bandwagon immediately. And the other day, I bought Mary Oliver’s collection Thirst to help satisfy my goal of one collection a day. I’ve been wanting to read Thirst for a long time now because Mary Oliver is my first true poet-love, and the collection is a progression through grief and faith. I read the collection in an entire day, but I keep coming back to this poem.
All I really want to say about this poem is that I love how the speaker is striving to seek out Jesus, literally, and realizes that she’s already seen him. What’s interesting is that when we have faith in a higher power, we’re taught to seek His will, enlightenment, a higher level of understanding, and all of these things that seem so unattainable. We can even be taught that we will only truly see these things in the after life, but that part of the process is to strive for that now. And all the while, we’re also taught stories like Jesus appearing as a poor man or a beggar and we don’t want to turn him away. But so many people forget the lesson that God is all around us. He’s not just a higher power sitting in the sky, waiting to strike us dead. He’s in the person sitting next to us, in the trees, in the prisoner, the woman who lives down the street, the mountains we continue to blow up and the people we continue to poison and treat like second-class citizens. We deal with all of these things all of the time and we constantly turn people away and destroy God’s creation because we don’t agree with something about them, their sexuality, their religion, their hair color, the clothes they wear, or we want something, like resources or money.
The speaker in this poem has reached the point where she’s not beating herself up because she can’t see Jesus in the sky right now. She sees him everywhere and that has brought her to a higher level of spiritual understanding. I wish we could all get there.
Mary Oliver’s collection Dream Work has always, always been my favorite, but Thirst has come close to knocking it out of the top spot. And what I would really love is to have the chance to just talk to her about either or both of these collections. Who wouldn’t? These are the poems I connect with. I hope that you enjoy this poem or that you find another poem or poet that you really connect with. So, challenge yourself: read a collection each day, every day this month. And feel free to send me a message to let me know how it’s going.
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.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Earlier this year, when I was hurting and crying, worrying that my family’s craziness and drama and addiction would eventually consume me, too, no matter what I did, my best friend told me a parable about Buddha. Forgive me if I take any liberties (or if I truncate the story), but she said that during one of Buddha’s tests, he was tempted or questioned by an evil spirit, who asked him what right he had to live. What right did Buddha have to be so at peace and happy? Buddha pointed to the ground as proof. He lived; therefore he had the right to his own life and his own happiness. And though a great many friends consoled me and said many kind, kind words about their belief in me—kinder than I deserved—this story is what stuck with me. You live, so therefore you have the right to your own life and your own happiness.
I’m going through another rough patch now, for many of the same reasons. Yesterday, I opened Mary Oliver’s Dream Work, bowing down to the sanctuary of poetry, where I hoped to find some clarity. And I encountered this poem, again, this poem which I’ve read many times before. I was tempted to skip over it. “Wild Geese” is so famous that I have oftentimes wondered if it’s been overdone, read too much, cherished too often.
Reading “Wild Geese” anew, I remembered that I was not alone: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” We are all hurting. But the natural world continues around us. The wild geese migrate home. And you are alive. The parable of the Buddha and Mary Oliver are saying much of the same thing: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/the world offers itself to your imagination,/calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.”
You don’t have to be good. You don’t even have to repent. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” You only have to remember that you have a place on this earth.
I’m going to post the link to the interview in O Magazine with Mary Oliver because I really think you should read it. (And you should read her poetry.) I think the interview is pretty interesting, but I also just wanted to say how glad I am that Rebecca posted “The Journey” because it’s one of my very favorite poems. Oliver’s Dream Work came into my life at a tumultuous time and it has always been a book I come back to again and again. My copy is worn to a thread because it’s been packed around, dropped, and read repeatedly. Other poems that are in that collection that I love are “Dogfish,” “Wild Geese,” “Black Snakes,”and “Coming Home.” Check out Mary Oliver. Her poems will bring some peace into your life.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Mary Oliver is a notoriously private poet, which is reflected in her often-upbeat poetry. She said of “The Journey” in an O Magazine interview with Maria Schriver: “I’m shocked to see that I wrote that. Because I was always very private about my life, and yet the poems in Dream Work  are not so private as I thought.” I, for one, am so thankful this poem came out of her despite herself, despite her privacy.
If ever you are hurting, read this poem. Save “the only life you could save.” Save yourself.
Thinking we were safe — insanity!
We went in to make love. All the same
Idiots to trust the little hotel bedroom.
Then in the gloom…
…And who does not know that pair of shutters
With the awkward hook on them
All screeching whispers? Very well then, in the gloom
We set about acquiring one another
Urgently! But on a temporary basis
Only as guests — just guests of one another’s senses.
But idiots to feel so safe you hold back nothing
Because the bed of cold, electric linen
Happens to be illicit….
To make love as well as that is ruinous.
Londoner, Parisian, someone should have warned us
That without permanent intentions
You have absolutely no protection
— If the act is clean, authentic, sumptuous,
The concurring deep love of the heart
Follows the naked work, profoundly moved by it.
This poem seems so ordinary, so in touch with everyday language. And yet it’s definitely a poem and would be so identifiable even if it were a prose poem. Mary Oliver remarks in A Poetry Handbook, “Every poem contains within itself an essential difference from ordinary language, no matter how similar to conversational language it may seem at first to be. Call it formality, compression, originality, imagination—whatever it is, it is essential…the space between daily language and literature is neither terribly deep nor wide, but it does contain a vital difference—of intent and intensity.” Another creative writing handbook calls this “density.” Whatever it is, I’m haunted by the “conversational” language of this poem and its subject matter.
“To make love as well as that is ruinous.” Such a simple, true line in such a simple, thoughtful poem.
Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook
I agree with Mary Oliver, but I still find myself so much more drawn to Modern poets and their poems than any other time period. (Maybe with contemporary poets/poems as a somewhat close draw. Kim Addonizio, I’m yours.)
Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing
kept flickering in with the tide
and looking around.
Black as a fisherman’s boot,
with a white belly.
If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile
under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough
as a thousand sharpened nails.
And you know
what a smile means,
the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,
whoever I was, I was
for a little while.
It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don’t know what they were,
huddled in the highest ripples
as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body
one gesture, one black sleeve
that could fit easily around
the bodies of three small fish.
Also I wanted
to be able to love. And we all know
how that one goes,
the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.
You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen
to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.
And anyway it’s the same old story—
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
for a simple reason.
And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging toward them.
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,
they can do it.
I know, I know I posted Mary Oliver the other day. But I’m in this contemplative, natural mode right now and Mary Oliver is speaking to me. I think what I like most about this poem, and a lot of her poetry, is how it slows life down, even if just for a few minutes.
Last night the geese came back,
from the blossom of the rising moon down
to the black pond. A muskrat
swimming in the twilight saw them and hurried
to the secret lodges to tell everyone
spring had come.
And so it had.
By morning when I went out
the last of the ice had disappeared, blackbirds
sang on the shores. Every year
the geese, returning,
do this, I don’t
The curtains opened and there was
an old man in a headdress of feathers,
leather leggings and a vest made
from the skin of some animal. He danced
in a kind of surly rapture, and the trees
in the fields far away
began to mutter and suck up their long roots.
Slowly they advanced until they stood
pressed to the schoolhouse windows.
I don’t know
lots of things but I know this: next year
flows over the starting point I’ll think I’m going to
drown in the shimmering miles of it and then
one or two birds will fly me over
As for the pain
of others, of course it tries to be
abstract, but then
there flares up out of a vanished wilderness, like fire,
still blistering: the wrinkled face
of an old Chippewa
smiling, hating us,
dancing for his life.
This poem is from Oliver’s collection Dream Work. This book of poems was given to me at a time when I was hurting and needed something soothing. It’s also one of the first real book of poems I owned. I’ve always admired Mary Oliver and her ability to capture the natural world. Each time I read one of her poems, I feel just a bit of peace, so I thought that made this poem a good candidate for a Sunday post. Read this in the quiet and enjoy.