Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sunday Poem: Mary Oliver


Isn't it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn't it clear
that black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I'm alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky--as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

[From Dream Work, 1986]

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. Oliver briefly attended Ohio State University, but she took her degree from Vassar College. Her 1984 collection, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize, and her 1992 New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award. She currently teaches at Bennington College.

Oliver's work is known for the relative absence of human characters. Quite often the poems find her alone in nature seeking a sense of otherness--or the answers such an experience might offer to distinctly human questions. Just as often, she is the container through which nature passes, opening herself to experience the mystery within her own consciousness.

In many ways, I find Oliver's poetry to be an updated variation of Emily Dickinson, which is not to say that Oliver is derivative. Oliver's voice is uniquely her own. However, the presence of Other in nature that so often captured Dickinson's attention is also a primary focus for Oliver. Both women fall into the great tradition of Romanticist nature poets. And both women have an evolved Christianity at the heart of their quest for Other.

However, in Dickinson, I seldom sense that she finds what she seeks within herself. With Oliver, I find that she feels in her animal flesh the connection to nature that holds for her the mystery of Spirit.

I also find in Oliver a knowledge that it is through her heart (what might be seen as bodhicitta, "wisdom heart," to a Buddhist) that she gains access to the sacred elements of the natural world. For example, in the poem above, she states, "if the doors of my heart ever close, I am as good as dead." This simple statement carries the weight of an entire philosophy of life: to live with an open heart is the most important thing.

It is through our open heart, our emotions, that we have access to the energies of the body. And it is through the body that we are related to the earth. Our minds cannot make that connection. Our thoughts distract us from the truth of our animal nature. But the soul understands, and through it we maintain an open heart, the tender heart of the warrior bodhisattva.

The above poem ends with the image of crows taking flight at dawn. Oliver muses that it seems as though the crows had spent the night dreaming the life they would want to live--a life of flight on thick, black wings.

By extension, the speaker, too, can dream her life and make it true. The entire poem, from the moss to the black oaks to the crows, reveals the lessons we might learn from the landscape around us if only we keep an open heart and allow the mystery to touch us.

This poem reflects the approach Oliver takes throughout the impressive body of her work. She honors the interior and exterior individual as well as any poet ever has. She is devoutly Christian without being preachy. She is a Romanticist without succumbing to Whitmanesque extravagance. She is a nature poet without losing sight of human concerns.

Many of her poems are available online. If interested, check out the following sites.

Mary Oliver: A Solitary Walk: An interview for the Christian Science Monitor, December 9, 1992, by Steven Ratiner.
Some online poems at Modern American Poetry.
Poetry Connection has 87 Oliver poems online.

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