Mary Oliver—Who Heeded the Call

 

by Renee Kimball

 

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

~ Mary Oliver

 “Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

~ Mary Oliver                          

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Sometimes we bump into an author that shakes us—strikes deep.  In complete amazement we say, I wish I had had the advantage of her wisdom sooner.  Now, going forward, may we all be as aware as Mary Oliver, may we all practice her approach to life, love, and nature.

 

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Mary Oliver was born on September 10, 1935, and died at the age of 83, on January 17, 2019. She published over 25 books of poetry and prose during her lifetime.

Oliver rarely wrote of her Ohio childhood.  She was a victim of extreme child abuse and family dysfunction. To survive, she escaped to nature and literature and they sustained and saved her.

She studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but left before completing her studies.

Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.  She continued to win numerous other literary awards as well as honorary doctorates during her lifetime.

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—from Upstream (Penguin Press, 2016).

“. . .Teach the children.  We don’t matter so much, but the children do. . . Show them daisies. . .Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. . Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

“. . . But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. . .I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.  It was everything that was needed. . .”

“I quickly found for myself two such blessings—the natural world, and the world of writing: literature.  These were the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place. . .”

“. . . And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

—from Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994)

“. . . You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen
to the enormous waterfalls of the sun. . .”

 

 

Wild Geese

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 your despair, yours, and I will tell
you mine
Meanwhile the world goes on.

. . .

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.”

—from Devotions (Penguin Press, 2017)

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?”

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.

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The world is much lonelier now without Mary Oliver.  We are fortunate that she left us a word filled legacy that advises us to be awake, attentive, read without stopping, and become a lover of nature.

Lastly,  if you are lucky and should hear the creative call, then do the work, whatever that may be that calls to you—open your arms, your mind, your being, and respond.

Those of us left behind remain immensely grateful that Mary Oliver heeded her call.

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“. . . My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot . . My loyalty is to the inner vison, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. . .

 “There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.  And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything.  The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

 —from Upstream (emphasis added).

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References

Cover photos from Amazon

Mary Oliver page from Goodreads.

Mary Oliver 1935–2019. Poetry Foundation.

Mary Oliver website.  Beacon.

“On Being with Krista Tippett  Mary Oliver Listening to the World.” Radio Podcast. September 3, 2020. Original Air Date February 5, 2015.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. October 10, 2017

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver. October 29, 2019.

Dream Work by Mary Oliver.  May 1, 1986

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

 

Love in the Time of Coronavirus, or Pulling Poems Off the Shelf

 

by Helen Currie Foster

Maybe you recall an interview like this, a chance for a fellowship.

Three dour English academics at eight a.m., staring skeptically at me, siting tense in my penitentially hard wooden chair.

First question: “Do you like poetry?”

No!” I blurt.

Not even Keats?” – the horrified response.

I try, fruitlessly, bootlessly, to explain, a la Marianne Moore. Poetry requires the reader to take a deep dive, to concentrate, commit time, hoping the poet isn’t just producing a clever crossword puzzle with arcane clues, but offering a key to the universe. To the meaning of life. So I don’t “like it” like one likes, say, certain music.

End of interview.

A murder mystery, in contrast (I’m still arguing this decades later), invites the reader to notice the clues and…participate. Even have some fun.

Fun!

Here are three poets who offer not only fun, but some good advice for mystery writers.

Do you know “Passengers” by Billy Collins, about the airport waiting room? The first couplet grabs all of us:

At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats

With the possible company of my death,…

We’re there. We’ve been in those blue seats, we remember the people near us, the girl eating pizza, the kids on the floor, the guy on his interminable work call.

Collins does this so craftily. “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.” Yup. And as we board, doesn’t the thought cross our minds that this plane may be the death of us? He’s got us in the first couplet.

Here’s another, “The Lanyard.” First couplet:

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly

Off the pale blue walls of this room…

We’ve all felt like that, bored… then:

I found myself in the L section of the dictionary

Where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard

That word lanyard! We all know one use for a lanyard. We’re straight back to camp, trying to braid gimp into a present for, yes, probably our mom. Billy Collins got us with “lanyard” in the title, and with his “ricocheting slowly” off the walls, which is just how we feel sometimes. In two lines he has our full attention. We’re already there with him, remembering the gimp, the braids, the other campers, and letting our eyes go down the page to see where he’s taking us.

Or how about Elisabeth McKetta’s collection, “The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell”? Take, for example, “An Occasional Elegy for Milk,” with its first couplet:

Weaning my daughter felt

Like breaking up with her.

Well! Here’s a poem worthy of time and attention. This insight, this simile, zooms straight to the heart and the brain. It’s real. Memory stirs, and we are there inside the poem. Not locked outside waiting to grasp the oh-so-secret clue, but right in the room.

In short poems in the last sections (2009, 2014) of his vast collection, Oblivion Banjo, Charles Wright takes us outdoors to face big themes (time passing, mortality). Here’s the beginning of “The Evening Is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away”:

The mares go down for their evening feed

Into the meadow grass.

Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—

Some sway, some don’t sway.

We’re there. Present tense, two mares, evening feed, pine trees. I won’t tell you how it ends: you’ll want to get there yourself. Similarly, his “Tutti Frutti”:

“A-wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop-bam-boo,”

Little Richard in full gear—

What could be better than that?

Obviously you want to know the answer. In eleven lines you’ll have it and be riffling through the pages for more.

We mystery writers seek vivid images, strong verbs, intriguing details. Like poets. We too want readers picking up each clue, following our character to the end. These poets, these poems, show how a first line can convince the reader to go on to the next line, and the line after that, not feeling that the writer’s just showing off erudition, or hiding a great meaning we’ll be lucky to find, but as if we’re invited into the enterprise, we’re in the waiting room, we’re watching the mares, we’re all in it together.

P.S. If only I’d read Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” before that interview! I could have said something about how we don’t want to “torture a confession out of” a poem….Oh well.

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Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series.  Read more about Helen and her books here.