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

The heart of a dog: an elegy

The heart of a dog: an elegy

I haven’t felt able to write for the last few days. As if January 2017 wasn’t bad enough – paint it battleship grey with a cold, steel heart – our beloved dog passed away on Saturday. If those words arouse no strong feeling of empathy, it’s OK, you can leave now. We dog lovers know there are many who don’t share our passion. Continue reading “The heart of a dog: an elegy”

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance (forms of rhetoric he states are are for ‘the small or large leaders who make History’), but rather insists that ‘One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments, the time of Becoming.’ . Continue reading “In the dark times will there also be singing?”

The call of the river

The call of the river

Canada geese in flight

Canada geese in flight. Photo by Philippe Henry

The day began, walking with the dog in the park, with a skein of geese flying overhead, a honking arrowhead of birds heading straight for the river. I don’t think there is any another sound that so lifts my spirits.  By mid-afternoon, the sunlight slanting brightly in the avenue, I heard the call of the river too.

As if pulled by the same primordial force that drew the geese, I headed out of the city, beyond Speke and the airport to Pickerings Pasture.  This is one of the best places to gain an appreciation of the breadth of the Mersey estuary, gouged and widened by glacial ice as it advanced south-eastwards and flooded as sea levels rose at the end of the ice age.  Here, at high tide, the river makes a broad S-bend sweep from the pinch point of the Runcorn gap south and west along the Cheshire shore towards the silver towers and chimneys of Stanlow oil refinery, glinting in the late afternoon sun.  Beyond lie the darkening outlines of the Clwydian hills.

The tide is running strongly toward the sea as, with the dog at my side, I set off to walk the short stretch along the river to the Runcorn bridge.  It’s a walk that embraces wild beauty and big-sky views, whilst snaking around the fringes of the Merseyside edgelands with its arterial roads, industrial estates, retail distribution centres and mysterious industrial processes.

Pickerings Pasture walk 18

The starting point, Pickering’s Pasture Nature Reserve, symbolises this dichotomy. Until the 1950s the  area was a salt marsh, grazed by cattle and home to wading birds and estuary plants. Then, for the next 30 years, the site was used as an industrial and household waste tip and a mountain of refuse rose on the salt marsh. But the land has now been reclaimed by Halton Borough Council, creating a haven for wildlife, covered by wild flowers, shrubs and trees and once again a place visited by resident and migrating birds. Surrounded by industry, it is a place of peace and quiet with magnificent views of the Mersey estuary.

Pickerings Pasture walk 1

We’re walking a section of the Trans-Pennine Trail here, encountering the occasional commuting cyclist who creeps up silently behind.  Along the track the autumn abundance of this ‘mast year’ is apparent; a year when, as the Guardian’s Plantwatch noted a few weeks back:

Trees are weighed down with an astonishing crop of nuts. … A mast year includes all the other nuts of woodland trees – acorns, sweet chestnuts, conkers, hazel, ash, maple, lime and many others. … Berries have also appeared in a bonanza season that should make for good foraging. There are heaps of big blackberries, elderberries, bilberries, sloes, rowan berries and others.

Pickerings Pasture walk 3

There were still a few blackberries, battered by the wind and rain of the past two weeks, along with elderberries and rowan, and lots and lots of rose hips.

Pickerings Pasture walk 2

Along with all those easily-identifiable berries there was this unfamiliar (to me) large shrub with long thin leaves and bright yellow berries.  I later identified it (I hope correctly) as Sea Buckthorn that gets its name from being largely confined to sea coasts where salt spray off the sea prevents other larger plants from out-competing it.  The berries are an important winter food resource for birds, especially the fieldfare – a bird regularly sighted here by the volunteers of the Friends of Pickering’s Pasture.

Pickerings Pasture walk 4

The Pickering’s Pasture site was regenerated between 1982 and 1986 when Halton Borough Council reclaimed the land, safely covering the waste of the land fill site with a thick layer of clay.  A little way along the river bank is this obelisk, erected on the site of an old navigational beacon that was used by shipping on the Mersey right up to 1971.  The obelisk was constructed by men employed on the regeneration project.

Pickerings Pasture walk 5

One of the benefits of that scheme was the construction of the elegant white footbridge across Ditton Brook that rises somewhere around Netherley and flows through Ditton Marsh before joining the Mersey at this point.  Before its construction, the idea of walking from Hale to Runcorn along the river must have been out of the question if you weren’t carrying waders.

Pickerings Pasture walk 1b

The brook, edged with tidal mud that attracts many wading birds, winds through the low-level industrial units of Halebank Industrial Estate.

Pickerings Pasture walk 6

But, at the eastern end of the footbridge a staircase of steps leads to a very different view: turn your gaze towards the river and, at high tide you’re presented with a view of the broad sweep of the Mersey with Cheshire’s sandstone ridge rising up behind Frodsham on the far bank and the hills of Wales on the skyline to the west.  The view is at its most impressive as sunset nears.

Pickerings Pasture walk 8

Walking on, the path is edged on the landward side by classic edgeland scenery: storage tanks, drainage ditches, railway arches and industrial units. We’re looking at the back end of the grandly-named Mersey Multimodal Gateway which, ‘if you’re into the movement and storage of goods’ – according to the group’s website – ‘is a unique piece of infrastructure with unrivalled features’.   At one point the path runs right alongside a food processing plant that is both noisy and smells richly of some ingredient that might be used in the brewing industry.

Pickerings Pasture walk 10

Since I last walked this stretch a huge Tesco distribution hangar has appeared, while nearby there is an Eddie Stobart cold storage yard where a ceaseless procession of articulated lorries were returning from making the day’s freight deliveries.

Pickerings Pasture walk 9

By now the bridge is dominating the view, although to be accurate there are two: the more westerly rail bridge and the distinctive Runcorn-Widnes road bridge that carries the A533 over the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal, opened in 1961 as a replacement for the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge which I remember crossing the Mersey on as a child.

Pickerings Pasture walk 11

Pickerings Pasture walk 14

At the foot of the railway bridge are the remains of an old dock, the walls constructed from the distinctive red sandstone of this region.

Pickerings Pasture walk 13

Pickerings Pasture walk 12

Pickerings Pasture walk 15

Returning along the path, I could make out the Manchester Ship Canal on the opposite shore, with what looked like another Eddie Stobart distribution facility adjoining it.  Beyond loomed the sandstone crags above Frodsham.

Pickerings Pasture walk 21

As the sun began to set behind clouds to the west, a Ryanair flight made its descent towards John Lennon airport.

Pickerings Pasture walk 17

Pickerings Pasture walk 18

The western sky was bathed in a golden glow as the sun set beyond the Welsh hills.

Pickerings Pasture walk 19

Pickerings Pasture walk 20

Pickerings Pasture walk 23

Walking back I suddenly realised that I was not alone: above me, silent columns of seagulls leisurely made their way, following the river, headed for the sea.  There were hundreds in any one batch, thousands strung out ahead of me moving towards Liverpool, and more coming on silently behind.  I don’t know if this is a nightly movement towards roosting areas on the shore along the coastline of the Mersey Bay, or whether it was associated with the tide, running strongly towards the sea. Whatever it signified, it was a magnificent sight, making a perfect end to a day that begun for me with that honking skein of geese flying above me in Sefton Park.

Pickerings Pasture walk 22

Pickerings Pasture walk 25

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.
– Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’

Pickerings Pasture walk 24

See also

Back on Kildonan shore

Back on Kildonan shore

on a clear day
unfasten the gate
and take the path
over the machair
through the orchids
down to the sea
– Thomas A Clarke, The Path to the Sea

We returned to the isle of Arran and the cottage on Kildonan shore where we have stayed before.  Once the coastguard’s home, ‘Streamlet’ is the last house on the shore; beyond here lies nothing; nothing, that is but the ancient meadows, their walls overgrown and slowly sinking into the land as the years pass, and the brooding bulk of Brennan Head. Continue reading “Back on Kildonan shore”