Mary Oliver, 1935-2019: one wild and precious life

Mary Oliver, 1935-2019: one wild and precious life

The poet Mary Oliver, who has died at the age of 83, wrote some of the poems I cherish most. Born in 1935 in a small Ohio town, she often found escape from a hard childhood and an abusive father by walking in the woods. “It was a very bad childhood for everybody, every member of the household, not just myself I think. And I escaped it, barely,” she later said. But I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.”

That experience was distilled in one of her finest poems, 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.

Following in the footsteps of Whitman and Thoreau, Oliver’s poetry is grounded in her close observation of the natural world and a deep sense of being in the world as a kind of spiritual experience, as she wrote in A Summer Day:

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.

 

And she was driven to contemplate the harm humans had caused to the world:

I think it is very very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing. I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work. But it is. What does that mean?

Despite being one of the most popular and garlanded of modern American poets (in 1984 her collection American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize), Oliver has often not been taken seriously as a writer. But for me she was one of the best.


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.

– Wild Geese

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?

– The Summer Day
Mary Oliver, rigt, with Molly Malone Cook, her partner for 40 years

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 his 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 a 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.

– When Death Comes
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One for Jamal: Not everything is lost

One for Jamal: Not everything is lost

Behind the counter at the newsagent, Jamal looked a little worse for wear: ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night,’ he said, explaining that the start of Ramadan always tended to knock his body rhythms for six. He’d got to bed late after evening prayers, and couldn’t sleep. Knowing he would have to be up at 3am to eat before morning prayers, he’d finally abandoned all thought of sleep. We went on to have an interesting conversation.

Jamal is a scouser whose Yemeni father would once deliver the newspaper right to our door. He says he’s grateful that his mixed ancestry has gifted him with two countries where he feels at home. He says he’s travelled to many countries and what he has found is that people are pretty much the same everywhere. He says all of us, whatever our faith – Muslim or Jew, Christian or Hindu – are taught by our religion that it is right to feed a stranger or look out for a neighbour. But now he is troubled: his Yemeni homeland is being torn apart in a war between Sunni and Shi’ite. His Muslim identity is being fractured. And anyway, there is more to him than just being Muslim. He is English and proud of it; he is Yemeni and proud of that too; he is Liverpudlian and proud of it; he is European and proud of that too. He is moved to tears by the Manchester bombing – but also by the ISIS bomb that killed 15 and wounded dozens last night as Muslim families in Baghdad broke their Ramadan fast at an ice cream shop.

I said to Jamal, ‘That reminds me of something I read by a Palestinian American poet. I will bring it to you.’ Continue reading “One for Jamal: Not everything is lost”

Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress

Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress

I have never had any problem sleeping, losing consciousness within minutes of laying my head on the pillow. Yet, paradoxically, I have always been a light sleeper, snapping awake at untoward sounds and disturbed by encroaching light. Any happy balance I had achieved between these contradictory poles was instantly shattered when, in late April, we brought home our new Cocker Spaniel puppy. Not only did I get less – much less – than my preferred allocation of sleep (being woken and expected to play chase around the garden at 5am), my light sleeper mode went into overdrive, instantly waking at the slightest movement or sound from the puppy’s crate at the foot of our bed. The pup would shift, then fall asleep, while I lay sleepless and alert until the grey light of dawn spilled through the curtains and our noisy, thoughtless neighbours began tootling their blasted chorus. Continue reading “Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress”

The poet Edward Thomas died 100 years ago today at the Battle of Arras

The poet Edward Thomas died 100 years ago today at the Battle of Arras

On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets: https://t.co/r6KgGKQOHJ

His notebook pages are still rippled by the blast that killed him. His war diary, 1 January – 8 April 1917, is held in the National Library of Wales.

 

To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago

To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago

Sitting in a darkening room yesterday as evening came on, I sensed snowflakes falling beyond the window. Torn by a western wind and rain that had fallen throughout the day, the falling shards of ghostly white were the petals of the magnolia tree that stands in our front garden, planted by us thirty years ago. Every year since, its trunk has thickened and its branches have spread; and every spring before coming into leaf it has put forth its creamy-white, goblet-shaped flowers in growing profusion. This year it reached full maturity, putting on a display that has lit up our window and the entire street. Seeing this annual unfolding fills me with great happiness. Planting this tree three decades ago strikes me now as being one of the most satisfying and valuable things I have ever done.   Continue reading “To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago”

Rereading John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet

Rereading John Berger: <em>Here Is Where We Meet</em>

The news of John Berger’s death in January encouraged me to read some of his books again. One of my favourites has always been Here Is Where We Meet, published in 2005. Like many of his books it’s unclassifiable: you may find it shelved among fiction, but Here Is Where We Meet is not a conventional novel. Though its memories of people known in different places and at different times is narrated in the author’s voice it’s not a memoir. Moving freely between past and present, via Lisbon, Krakow, London in the Blitz and Geneva, Berger’s lyrical and sensuous narration incorporates reflections on Paleolithic cave paintings, Borges, Rembrandt, and Rosa Luxemburg. Continue reading “Rereading John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

<em>The Underground Railroad</em> by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, enduring unremitting hardship in search of freedom. The first time she had been approached by fellow-slave Caesar she had said no. Three weeks later they ran, pursued by a fanatical slave catcher named Ridgeway, determined to hunt them down and destroy the abolitionist network that has aided them. In flight, Whitehead’s narrative evolves into something both unexpected and surreal as he conjures scenes that fracture the distance between America’s past and its present. Continue reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’”