Source of book: I own Devotions, selected poems from Oliver’s lifetime.
Last year, one of my splurges was to purchase this book. I don’t buy many new books, but poetry tends to be harder to find used and affordable except by lucky accident. I knew this would be the case in the wake of Oliver’s death in early 2019, as she was already popular. I do not regret this purchase at all.
As I have been doing with much of my poetry collection, I decided to read a portion of this book, representing the five collections Oliver released in the 2010s. (The book is in reverse chronological order.) The collections are Felicity (2015), Blue Horses (2014), Dog Songs (2013), A Thousand Mornings (2012), and Swan (2010).
Looking back at my poetry reading, there are a number of themes that stand out. First, I love poets who write about nature - and that goes all the way back to my childhood reading Emily Dickinson and Christina Rosetti and Robert Frost. Second, I definitely love female poets. In particular, I tend to be drawn toward the writings of female poets who were outside the sexual mainstream in some way. From the celibacy of Dickinson and Rosetti, to the shockingly egalitarian Anne Bradstreet, to Elizabeth Barrett Browning who defied her father’s orders, to the bisexual and gender-bending Edna St. Vincent Millay, to lesbian poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver. (Dickinson may also fall in this category.) At the most obvious level, women who wished to write were less likely to marry - they didn’t fit the “serve the male” paradigm of the past very well. Or the “women get the second shift” reality of today.
Mary Oliver had a traumatic childhood, with a dysfunctional family. She experienced sexual abuse, although she did not reveal the specifics. She did say that she was able to withdraw into her inner life, nature, and poetry. I will also note that she was a band geek - I think that comes out in her delightful skill with the rhythm of language.
In her 20s, Oliver met Molly Malone Cook, who became her partner for over 40 years until Cook’s death.
Oliver’s poetry is unique in style. I find it to have the observational skills of Frost and Dickinson, but expressed in free verse rather than traditional forms. It is perhaps less metaphorical and more descriptive, but that is an oversimplification. More than anything, I noticed that she blurs the line between nature and the poet, between the human and the earth. And also, between the Divine and Nature. I happen to agree very much with that one. It is impossible for me not to see the hand of God in nature - we both see no antagonism between evolution and creation. She was a famous walker, spending hours daily exploring and observing nature. I see a bit of myself in that, although I am not as solitary. Her poems bring to life not just the sights, but the sounds and smells and textures. It is also striking how optimistic and graceful (in both senses) her writing is. While she notes in one poem that “Each of us wears a shadow,” she follows it with the consolation of nature in the summer. May we all find such peace in our souls.
Here are my favorites of the ones I read:
I Wake Close to Morning
Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask,
“Is this the place?”
Or this one, on a related note:
The World I Live In
I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.
I love her use of “Maybe.” I think both my Fundie friends and my hard-core Atheist friends tend to obsess over certainty, which is surely a product of our post-Enlightenment times. Neither is particularly open to the ambiguity, the cracks in between the physical and spiritual world, the experience of transcendence. I’m not saying that in a pejorative way. Not everyone experiences things the same way, and we certainly use different lenses to interpret the experiences we have. I do, however, like Oliver, find God in the world around me and in my own experience. And yes, I was once locked in that orderly house of reasons and proofs, where we had to KNOW that we and we alone were right about God, and it is a stifling and cruel place to live. G. K. Chesterton was a breath of fresh air to me early on for that reason: his was a faith not of certainty and bigotry but of wonder and delight and good will toward men. It is the same with Oliver, despite the bigotry she encountered.
Here is another one I loved.
Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look
up into that blue space?
Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions.
And don’t worry about what language you use,
God no doubt understands them all.
Even when the swans are flying north and making
such a ruckus of noise, God is surely listening
Rumi said, There is no proof of the soul.
But isn’t the return of spring and how it
springs up in our hearts a pretty good hint?
Yes, I know, God’s silence never breaks, but is
that really a problem?
There are thousands of voices, after all.
And furthermore, don’t you imagine (I just suggest it)
that the swans know about as much as we do about
the whole business?
So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly.
Take from it what you can.
I see a number of parallels with sayings from Christ and from Ecclesiastes there.
Switching gears a bit, here is a good one about poetry and meaning.
That Little Beast
That pretty little beast, a poem,
has a mind of its own.
Sometimes I want it to crave apples
but it wants red meat.
Sometimes I want to walk peacefully
on the shore
and it wants to take off all its clothes
and dive in.
Sometimes I want to use small words
and make them important
and it starts shouting the dictionary,
Sometimes I want to sum up and give thanks,
putting things in order
and it starts dancing around the room
on its furry legs, laughing
and calling me outrageous.
But sometimes, when I’m thinking about you,
and no doubt smiling,
it sits down quietly, one paw under its chin,
and just listens.
All of the above come from Felicity, which I found enjoyable from start to finish. As her last collection, it was written very late in life, and represents the kind of life I would love as an old man.
Blue Horses is a bit different, in part because it references one of Franz Marc’s most famous paintings, “The Tower of Blue Horses.” Oliver imagines herself in the painting, and imagines trying to explain to the horses how their creator died in war of shrapnel to the brain.
The Tower of Blue Horses by Franz Marc
Not all of the poems are like this, but they do tend more toward themes of death and loneliness and transience. I could quote any number of them, but I particularly loved this one:
The Vulture’s Wings
The next collection is Dog Songs, which is about, well, dogs. Oliver had a number of beloved pets throughout her lifetime, and pays tribute to some of them in this volume. I won’t quote any here (too many to quote elsewhere…), but any dog lover can see her affection and bond with her canine companions.
The next two come from A Thousand Mornings.
I Happened to be Standing
I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.
I have always had a fraught relationship with prayer, to be honest. In the religious tradition I was raised in, the most devout, the most “godly” would spend an hour or more in prayer every day. I never could do this, in large part because I HATED going over a long list of petitions on behalf of everyone I knew. And any of the religious formulas, and there are a wide diversity, seemed to be either something quickly done, repetitive and formulaic, or more like meditation. The pressure of wanting to be a devout person didn’t help with this, nor did the fact that it seemed to come easiest to the sort of people that I didn’t really understand. Unfortunately, this, like most things religious, ended up in conflict with my mother.
As I got older, I let go of it, and just embraced a few ritual prayers, brevity, and the idea of experiencing communion with the Divine through music and nature. So this poem makes sense for me. Much more so than “prayer time” as I learned it.
Here is a shorter poem that also speaks to me:
Three Things to Remember
As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.
Sometimes there are no rules.
All of us ex-Fundies need to hear this early and often.
I’ll end with this one, from Swans. It speaks for itself.
On the Beach
On the beach, at dawn:
four small stones clearly
hugging each other.
How many kinds of love
might there be in the world,
and how many formations might they make
and who am I ever
to imagine I could know
such a marvelous business?
When the sun broke
it poured willingly its light
over the stones
that did not move, not at all,
just as, to its always generous term,
it shed its light on me,
my own body that loves,
equally, to hug another body.