Spiritual Mentors: Mary Oliver

aamary-oliverDon’t bother me.

I’ve just

been born. (1.)

When I discovered the poems of Mary Oliver, I realized I had known her all my life. Her poems- and she is, thank God, a prolific writer- are wrapped in a kind of awe and wonder which I thought were a kind-of handicap I bore. Through her, more than any other writer, I stopped feeling childish about wanting to see the moist underside of an embedded-for-eons rock, or wanting to linger over ant hills and tangles of vines.

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.. (2.)

Mary Oliver sees- feels winding around her soul- the connectedness of all things. To know the wolf, one must know something about the clouds. To be able to truly write about the love of a dog, it is vital to know the trepidation we feel when entering a darkened room. To know even a little bit about God, it is necessary to know much about how and why and when a flower reaches for the sun. Her poem “Praying:”

It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.(3.)

Ms. Oliver will 80 years old next year, lives in Massachusetts,  and is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection ‘American Primitive’ in 1984. She is America’s best selling poet, and it is for a reason: her work is accessible to all, but multi-layered and deeply satisfying at no matter what depth a reader chooses to plunge into it. Her writing is direct and clear, owing much to19th century writers like Thoreau and Whitman.

Poetry is a river; many voices travel in it; poem after poem moves along in the exciting crests and falls of the river waves. None is timeless; each arrives in an historical context; almost everything, in the end, passes. But the desire to make a poem, and the world’s willingness to receive it- indeed the world’s need of it- these never pass. (4.)

In speaking, writing, thinking about God, words will (because they are only words) fail. Images, feelings, smells and tastes must be carried on the backs of metaphors and images before they can be pushed and prodded into that particular formation of information which can then be handed from one person to another. Communicating about God is both a marvelous task and an impossible task, a repulsive task and a seductive one.

Mary Oliver, more than any other writer, gave me the courage to write that last sentence. And to now leave it alone.

aa Mary Oliver

(Her many collections are all still in print and will be for decades to come. There are many on- line as well. In fact, right now, Google “Mary Oliver Wild Geese” and read for yourself her most beloved poem!)

1.from “One or Two Things,” ‘New and Selected Poems,’ Beacon, 1992

2.  from “When Death Comes,” ibid.

3. “Praying,” ‘Thirst,’ Beacon, 2006

4.from Oliver’s ‘A Poetry Handbook- A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry,’ Harcourt, 1994.

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