Saturday, November 14, 2009

mary oliver and the message of moving on

it appears that i didn't do a very good job trying to publicize a favorite poet of mine in a previous post (reference: an extra off-day of poetry). it turns out the link doesn't work. which is a shame, since she's one of my favorites, and i think deserving of more attention than she's gotten. to rectify this error, i'm do a re-post, so that she can get the credit she deserves.

the poet in question is Mary Oliver. she's a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work seems to make its way into popular culture--unfortunately without proper citation. you can find a very good biographical summary of her at the Poetry Foundation website (reference: Mary Oliver's page). i'm a fan, in part because unlike so many "award-winning" artists that i've seen, her stuff isn't overblown, overhyped, overdone verbosity.

i find her poetry really good. i mean really good. as in it does what really really really good poems are supposed to do: slow you down, create a pause in your day, and let you take in the air and sun and clear blue sky and the supreme depths of a single moment of time held in infinite stillness.

which brings me to the main reason i like her poetry: realization. particularly in regards to the self.

you see, there are certain moments in certain situations in certain conditions in certain ways, in the instances that lie transfixed between the interstices of time, in the places that sit within the recesses of the universe, in emotions and memories and thoughts and senses felt so often so much so only alone, when you don't need help with cadence, when you don't need help with motivation, when you don't need help with reaching deeper truths, but instead need help in finding an understanding to a singular, peculiar, particular aspect of the instinctual, fundamental, eternal question: why?

part of the answer to this is in the meaning rhetorical, as in relation to things outside or beyond or greater than yourself: what is it that you are trying to reach? what is it that you are trying to find? what is it that you seek?

but another part of the answer--and a part perhaps more antecedent, perhaps more basic, perhaps more profound--is in the meaning specific, as in terms of you and you alone: what is it that makes you search? what is it that makes you wish, want, need to search?

in essence, i can phrase the question as this: what gives you your why?

and when you're at mile 130 and beyond all stages of suffering and looking at another 13 yet to go, you will be faced with that question, and you will need to find an least, if you want to have any chance of moving on.

and that's where i find Mary Oliver's work comes in. because the spirit and subject matter of her poetry seems to get to this. not explicitly, not clearly, but most definitely directly, and in a way that gets to the heart of the question.

i can tell you there have been times when i have faced that question, and was not sure of the answer, and thought back to her lines, and found something that led me to it. and that something was me.

and that's what her poems are about. the self. and learning about it. and discovering that there is more to it than you ever thought possible.

more than enough to move on.

here's what i mean:

The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
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
was terrible.
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.

Wild Geese
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.

The Buddha's Last Instruction
"Make of yourself a light "
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal - a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire-
clearly I'm not needed
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing

better to do
than listen.
I mean this

In Greece,
a long time ago,
an old couple
opened their door

to two strangers
who were,
it soon appeared,
not men at all,

but gods.
It is my favorite story--
how the old couple
had almost nothing to give

but their willingness
to be attentive--
but for this alone
the gods loved them

and blessed them--
when they rose
out of their mortal bodies,
like a million particles of water

from a fountain,
the light
swept into all the corners
of the cottage,

and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
bowed down--
but still they asked for nothing

but the difficult life
which they had already.
And the gods smiled, as they vanished,
clapping their great wings.

Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
this morning--
whatever it was I said

I would be doing--
I was standing
at the edge of the field--
I was hurrying

through my own soul,
opening its dark doors--
I was leaning out;
I was listening.

1 comment:

Kristen Lodge said...

2 of my favorite poems. This is the quote I have on my computer screen saver; it means everything to me:

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