Recoiling, still-swollen heart stitched up from past hurts rent in two again, my soul knew without prescription what it lacked, what would slake its anemic thirst. And so, four years ago, I carved out time to spend hours and days in the library nestled on a hill: its small, dark wood and brick interior teeming with more than I could absorb. Poetry, I needed poetry.
Anthologies, collections inhaled, new poets discovered, headings lightly starred by my pencil when their offerings were apropos, I hastily made duplicates on an old paper copier and began a binder of favorites. It was my salve, my medicine. I was surprised by the depth of this thirst, and the satisfaction found when filled. It’s when I first ran into your work, Mary. You started filling my binder so much that I had to just buy your books.
Same name, same brunette head of hair, same love of the wild world, but oh, how you captured it, how you noticed every detail! Brilliance crafted from dewdrops…
What Is There Beyond Knowing
What is there beyond knowing that keeps calling to me? I can’t turn in any direction but it’s there. I don’t mean the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s silk song, but the far-off fires, for example, of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning theater of light, or the wind playful with its breath; or time that’s always rushing forward, or standing still in the same–what shall I say–moment.
What I know I could put into a pack as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it on one shoulder, important and honorable, but so small! While everything else continues, unexplained and unexplainable. How wonderful it is to follow a thought quietly to its logical end. I have done this a few times.
But mostly I just stand in the dark field, in the middle of the world, breathing in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name but breath and light, wind and rain. If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet. I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass and the weeds.
Lingering in Happiness
After rain after many days without rain, it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees, and the dampness there, married now to gravity, falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground
where it will disappear–but not, of course, vanish except to our eyes. The roots of the oaks will have their share, and the white threads of the grasses, and the cushion of moss; a few drops, round as pearls, will enter the mole’s tunnel;
and soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years, will feel themselves being touched.
In the minutiae of spider webs glistening, dogs chasing deer and geese flying overhead, you said without saying that spring will return, light follows dark, and hurts will heal. In re-reading one of your collections this morning after hearing of your death, I was able to distill your glorious, muted life’s work into one phrase:
beauty is sorrow subdued.
Don’t think just now of the trudging forward of thought, but of the wind-drive of unquestioning affirmation.
It’s summer, you never saw such a blue sky, and here they are, those white birds with quick wings,
sweeping over the waves, chattering and plunging,
their thin beaks snapping, their hard eyes happy as little nails.
The years to come–this is a promise–will grant you ample time
to try the difficult steps in the empire of thought where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.
But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding, than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.
The flock thickens over the roiling, salt brightness. Listen,
maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world in the clasp of attention, isn’t the perfect prayer,
but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt, is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,
but of pure submission. Tell me, what else could beauty be for? And now the tide
is at its very crown, the white birds sprinkle down,
gathering up the loose silver, rising as if weightless. It isn’t instruction, or a parable.
It isn’t for any vanity or ambition except for the one allowed, to stay alive.
It’s only a nimble frolic over the waves. And you find, for hours,
you cannot even remember the questions that weigh so in your mind.
Mary Oliver, I hope you were ready at that iron door, finding it open not to death, but to more life. You have been the poet I loved most, the garden in my heart. And despite the abuse that defined your youth, you found more in this world to love than to hate–what can be a greater triumph? I hope, like the dead fox, you looked until the last possible moment back into the world, and found not only your song, but the myriad songs you have inspired in others. After a five-month dearth, you have brought back my desire to put the pen to paper to write, to step out into the wild world again and stop to listen to all it can show me. In its beauty, my sorrows are subdued. I will continue to seek beauty.
Fly, hummingbird, fly.
Mary Oliver, 1935-2019
All poetry quoted here can be found in the book pictured above, though I recommend you also find her other collections! I apologize that WordPress wouldn’t cooperate with typing them in their original form. I added the bold type for emphasis.