American poet Mary Oliver (b. 1935) has been a published poet since the 1960s. She and her partner Molly Malone Cook are longtime residents of Provincetown, Massachusetts. Cook died in 2005. I think of her poems as a quiet place in the bustling world to stop and listen. Their diction is straightforward, their tone tends to be optimistic and meditative, their subject is usually the natural world, their sound like the regular trod of a boot on a soft ground of pine - you hardly hear the footfall, some crackles of needles and twigs, but when you look back its step has made an imprint. I own three of her books, two volumes of poems Dream Work and Why I Wake Early, and A Poetry Handbook - which talks about the elements of poems and how they are put together. Here is a link to her books, some of her poems, and here is my selection for today's inflorescence.
An Afternoon in the Stacks
Closing the book, I find I have left my head
inside. It is dark in here, but the chapters open
their beautiful spaces and give a rustling sound,
words adjusting themselves to their meaning.
Long passages open at successive pages. An echo,
continuous from the title onward, hums
behind me. From in here, the world looms,
a jungle redeemed by these linked sentences
carved out when an author traveled and a reader
kept the way open. When this book ends
I will pull it inside-out like a sock
and throw it back in the library. But the rumor
of it will haunt all that follows in my life.
A candleflame in Tibet leans when I move.
moved through my heart
like the thinnest of blades
as that red-tail pumped
once with its great wings
and flew above the gray, cracked
about the bird, it was
something about the way
mute and put, whatever
goes flashing by.
when I sit like this, quiet,
all the dreams of my blood
and all outrageous divisions of time
seem ready to leave,
to slide out of me.
Then, I imagine, I would never move.
the hawk has flown five miles
dazzling whoever else has happened
to look up.
I was dazzled. But that
wasn't the knife.
It was the sheer, dense wall
of blind stone
without a pinch of hope
or a single unfulfilled desire
sponging up and reflecting,
as it has for centuries,
the sun's fire.
Honey at the Table
It fills you with the soft
essence of vanished flowers, it becomes
a trickle sharp as a hair that you follow
from the honey pot over the table
and out the door and over the ground,
and all the while it thickens,
grows deeper and wilder, edged
with pine boughs and wet boulders,
pawprints of bobcat and bear, until
deep in the forest you
shuffle up some tree, you rip the bark,
you float into and swallow the dripping combs,
bits of the tree, crushed bees - - - a taste
composed of everything lost,in which everything lost is found.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
That winter it seemed the city
was always burning - night after night
the flames leaped, the ladders pitched forward.
Scorched but alive, the homeless wailed
as they ran for the cold streets.
That winter my mind had turned around,
shedding, like leaves, its bolts of information -
drilling down, through history,
toward my motionless heart.
Those days I was willing, but frightened.
What I mean is, I wanted to live my life
but I didn't want to do what I had to do
to go on, which was: to go back.
All winter the fires kept burning,
the smoke swirled, the flames grew hotter.
I began to curse, to stumble and choke.
Everything, solemnly, drove me toward it -
the crying out, that's so hard to do.
Then over my head the red timbers floated,
my feet were slippers of fire, my voice
crashed at the truth, my fists
smashed at the flames to find the door -
wicked and sad, mortal and bearable,
it fell open forever as I burned.
die for it -
or the world. People
have done so,
their small bodies be bound
to the stake,
fury of light. but
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun
for everyone just
as it rises
under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?
What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
It is possible, I suppose, that sometime
we will learn everything
there is to learn: what the world is, for example,
and what I means. I think this as I am crossing
from one field to another, in summer, and the
mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either
knows enough already or knows enough to be
perfectly content not knowing. Song being born
of quest he knows this: he must turn silent
were he suddenly assaulted with answers. Instead
oh hear his wild, caustic, tender warbling ceaselessly
unanswered. At my feet the white-petaled daisies display
the small suns of their center-piece - their, if you don't
mind my saying so - their hearts. Of course
I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and
narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know.
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun
lights up willingly; for example - I think this
as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch -
the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the
daisies for the field.
Mmmm. "Honey at the table" is lovely. Very sensual.
She's one of my favorite poets. Here is my favorite of hers - one of the few poems I know word for word:
In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Heather - she really great at finding what is delicious in the everyday - teaching us to treasure it.
Sheila - very impressive! I didn't know that one - it's very reflective of what I think of as her buddhist tendencies.
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