Excerpts from a Longer Piece about the Poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

 

Fragment of an ancient Greek statue

 

Here are a few excerpts from a long essay I’m working on about Mary Oliver and Plato (odd bedfellows, I know). Though I am not always a fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry, I am moved by both her tenacity as a poet and the positive impact her writing continues to have on the lives of so many poetry lovers.

 

They say if Mary is taking a walk, and she begins to walk slower and slower, and finally she’s standing still scribbling, you know it was a successful walk. —Mary Oliver talking about herself as a poet writing in nature[1]

 

1.

The twins Liney and Jane and especially Liney love the nature poetry of Mary Oliver. I prefer Hass. Something so simple as his “…small brown wren in the tangle/of the climbing rose…” stirs my imagination more than anything from Oliver.[2] They especially admire her poem “Wild Geese.”[3] They call it a permission poem when the poet invites the reader not to be so hard on herself:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
The poem then conflates reading with wandering across what to my mind is an alluvial plain. Then Liney might ask, ‘What’s to see, Theo, in landscapes running together like this?’ ‘What’s it feel like to go out into them?’ Whatever ‘it’ is, I look through mist and weeds. Through colorless, odorless weather:
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.
It’s like a mystical experience when, reading the poem, Liney claims to cease to exist. Or she coexists with those oral geese flapping high overhead in some slack V formation and enough rising light to eat a moon with!

 

2.

Mary Oliver’s hometown of Maple Heights, Ohio, covers roughly five square miles of suburban Cleveland, where the twins were born and raised. A handsewn notebook Mary Oliver carried for jotting down her experiences in the woods of Cuyahoga County measures 3-by-5 inches and contains owls, an alder grove, graveyards, bright barns, mothers, fathers, blueberry fields, mortgages, cranberry bogs, a bear, robins, Shawnee in absentia, rainy seasons, egrets, lightning, a few kids running at dusk, first snow, mushrooms, lumbermen, quick Ohio creeks, a train whistle, passing neighbors, strangers passing, a buck moon, hunters moon, wolf moon, sickle moon, strawberry moon, walnut trees, beech, sugar maple, cucumber trees, everything waiting to be reassembled into proper poems.

 

3.

I don’t see Mary Oliver as a permission poet the way the twins do. She is a peripatetic poet, maybe, going around on foot to gather her materials and vibes. Going into the woods like that. She identifies herself as this other kind, too:

I’ve written before that God has ‘so many names.’ To me, it’s all right if you look at a tree, as the Hindus do, and say the tree has a spirit. It’s a mystery, and mysteries don’t compromise themselves—we’re never gonna know. I think about the spiritual a great deal. I like to think of myself as a praise poet. I acknowledge my feeling and gratitude for life by praising the world and whoever made all these things.[4]

Permission. Peripatetic. Praise. I could do something with these words. I just might. An informal dissertation. I almost got a Master’s degree. It was to be in Poetics. I would have borrowed fifty thousand dollars to cover tuition. Who goes fifty thousand dollars into debt for a hobby that may or may not be his passion?

 

4.

Of the fifteen books of poems Mary Oliver wrote, the one before Dream Work that got her the Pulitzer. She was already being touted as the bestselling poet in modern times. My chalking her popularity up to the accessibility of her poems led the twins to think of me as an elitist for a while. I admitted without sarcasm that she could be soulful: In our time of climate change, her poems asked what was missing and, naming Nature, may yet turn us into mystics.

But it wasn’t always about Nature. I suspect that the twins rank Dream Work over the other books because suddenly, and then only occasionally, the poet steps out of those nearby woods to write in conspicuous ways about her own suffering. The poem “Rage” is about a man, presumably her father, interfering with her when she was a child. Of him she writes
But you were also the red song
in the night,
stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body,
leaving your bitter taste.
The damp rose of her body stays with me, even if I expect a darker presentation of abuse. I want to talk to the twins and especially Liney about this. What is the redness of song? Where may rage go? But I cannot for the simple reason that I don’t know what Liney has lived through and what attracts here to these poems.

 

5.

Mary Oliver lived in three different and distinct places representing three essential phases of her life. We started in the woods near Maple Heights with her pencils and handsewn notebook that she might set aside while she whistled or whittled or spotted animals or diverted streams with rocks peeled from the moist earth or assembled what to her mind was a thatched house for a wayward girl leaving her real home forever. I imagine this to be her entire adolescence, before she went away to Ohio State University without taking a degree and then to Vassar, again without taking a degree. I love any detail implying underachievement and also a higher calling. Then it was off to Provincetown in what I’m calling Mary Oliver’s middle phase. She lived with Molly Cook, a photographer, I believe, and a gallery owner, for decades. She must have written the bulk of her poems there. Whether she did or not, the women descended together into retirement in Florida, where Mary outlived Molly. Then a protracted mourning period before Mary could have some fun on her own. Despite her introversion, she mingled with a big and I think multigenerational band of friends, before contracting cancer and dying at eighty-three on the island of Hobe Sound.

 

[1] From an interview Mary Oliver gave Maria Shriver for Oprah Winfrey’s website (2011)

[2] From Robert Hass’ poem “Cuttings” in Human Wishes (1989)

[3] Originally published in her book Dream Work (1986)

[4] From an interview Mary Oliver gave Maria Shriver for Oprah Winfrey’s website (2011)

 

Father Recalls J.F.K.’s Funeral Procession Fifty Years After

 

The day after the assassination, Ms. House brought her own television set to school. Arranging its large rabbit ears until the picture came in clearly, she showed everyone the soldiers transporting the President to Arlington. They carried his corpse in a horse-drawn wagon. The horses, snowy white, were mythical looking. A flag was draped over the coffin. People in mourning lined the avenues for miles. The dead president lay in state in the rotunda. The First Lady shrouded in black, her little boy wore shorts in winter.

 

 

Wonder Woman Alights on Dominican School

‘Wonder Woman imitator at annual Summer Solstice Celebration and Parade, Santa Barbara, Calif., June 2007,’ by Joe Sohm

 

Zhongshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan, 1972

Mom stayed home for me when I was boy. Home was Taiwan once Dad made captain at the Taipei Air Station. Then Sister Mother, who some called Sister Esther and some called Superior General, became my teacher at Dominican School. If I was the only one to call her Sister Mother, it wasn’t a put-down but a natural association between abstract nouns for family members. I learned much later that her real name was Marian Caldwell (1915-2000) and referred to her simply as Marian in my daydreams of the conversations we might have had if she’d known me as a grownup.

I don’t remember what Marian looked like except that the frame made by her coif and veil made her face seem bunched-up in a way she’d grown used to. I suspect I was also warping her appearance in the countless drawings I did in my spiral-bound notebook of cartoon nuns in different shapes and sizes. She’s un-seeable now. I can’t even find a photograph of her in the yearbooks of our time. She’s buried in the vast cemetery along Chongde Street in the mountains on the outskirts of Taipei. I remember riding my Schwinn Typhoon down the lanes there long before she died. I remember drawing myself speeding along on my bike, cherry red amid grayest tombs and the likenesses of nuns and my gravestone rubbings taped into my nonextant notebook. I used to ask myself if the ghost fear of Taiwanese boys was real. If so, were my rubbings more like goading the very guys I wanted to be friends with?

I would give anything to see the drawing that made Marian my enemy. I almost certainly began with a few light marks, and with an expanding sense of purpose patterned blue bikini bottoms with stars for a pelvic region. After that, I must have given her go-go boots galore, a lasso of truth, an eagle for a breastplate, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and a tiara doubling as a boomerang when weapons needed knocking out of the hands of perpetrators—say Cheetah’s. Say Ares. Say Genocide. Behold: The Circle.

Mother Sister found no Great Defender in a leggy triangle whose legs were different sizes but asked of boy illustrators dumb to how girls should be considered what their place was in Earth’s meadows. Able-bodied and swift with her hands, she whacked my knuckles hard with a rattan cane for drawing a pornographic picture. Drawing blood on her third hit she caught hold of herself.

I don’t think she would have hit me had I not named my patron. From her greater perspective, I was lying. After all, who would put anyone up to such an odious drawing? Mary Chang, who was littler than I, I called Nettles after a stinging nettle stung her on our way up the Junjian Yan Trail to Dog’s Head Mountain one sunny morning. It was Nettles who paid forward a cup of ramen for the likeness of the superhero she must call Supergirl for her trouble pronouncing W’s.

Marian, you would be surprised to know how often I think of you. I imagine you sometimes in the bustle of crowded squares, among commuters filling the avenues at dusk, your hunch drifting away toward its vanishing point. I sense your presence now in a picture at an exhibition at the Harvard Bookstore on Massachusetts Avenue. Known for such books as The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Epiplectic Bicycle, and The Beastly Baby, writer and illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) includes more than a few cutthroats and pied pipers in his drawings. His style is disarming at first, and then it alarms. We must look hard and, doubting ourselves, look again to see if he really is featuring a pedophile in what appears to be a cartoon for children. Our fear of what it may be, Marian, we sense in this untitled drawing— and fly beyond the bejeweled fingertips of the fat man striding along a kind of Edwardian Fifth Avenue in his fur coat and golden fedora. If he longs languishing to tap that or snatch that or whatever such beings do, my own imagination, Marian, has always been more puritanical than sexualized. Never mind that the illustration is a canard of human predation provoking us to reflect on the jurisdiction of fear and reasoning. Never mind that Gorey probably got smacked for being accidentally or naturally flagrant or flamboyant in his younger days. Never mind how one pays for being who one is in a conservative epoch. But I’m no cultural critic. I’m not even sure what I want to say to you, so I’ll keep it simple: I wish you were here with me at the exhibition. We could go to dinner afterwards. The first thing I’d tell you, even before we shared our opinions about the art, is that I’ve tried many times to write a memoir about my childhood. In it, I report that you hit me three times and that on the third time you drew blood. This is my flourish. Though you did hit me three times, and though it hurt, I did not bleed. I wanted the word blood to connote the fear I felt, and my confusion. I’ve called the piece, my so-called memoir, “Wonder Woman Alights on Dominican School.” It is my “Supergirl” essay, too. I was talked out of doing much with it because this superhero means so much to so many women as to feel proprietary. Your heaven is like that, too. Proprietary. I’ve never believed in it as a place to go, but if it is a place, I look forward to meeting you there and walking with you over mythical hills into valleys and meadows where fear is a funny remnant and boys, taken at their word, are patiently redirected.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004

On the Litter

 

T

he secretary sits in his car outside Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, its Rosetta window reminiscent of the one inlaid in the gable wall at Otey, his boyhood parish. A drooping melaleuca languishes beneath the window, in the light of the entryway. Men gather to smoke there, in this light, before flicking their butts into the wet street and entering the church to find their spots. The secretary must join them, as he’s joined them a thousand times before—to read aloud bylaws and meeting norms and to ask if anyone has any announcements. Tonight, the grand poobah Max will open the floor to the men’s experiences with a recitation of Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,”

I have walked though many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being,
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray…

To coax himself to give his fellow men his undivided attention, the secretary makes a game of it: He will sit quietly and take notes more copiously than the anonymity of the members’ permits. He will not doodle. He will not daydream. He will quietly write out everyone’s remarks in the first person, parroting each guy’s voice to the best of his ability.

 

Kobe M.

I’ve rarely felt more intimate with my wife than when we went shopping for a couch. I was going to tell her this, but I know it doesn’t match her definition of intimacy. It takes two, you know, to be truly intimate.

 

Phil

When the various ways of getting an erection lowered my blood pressure too much, we tried alternative ways of sex. My wife likes them a lot, but I’m not sure she needs me for it.

 

Alec

Has anyone heard about this male platonic touch method for keeping a marriage interesting? My hugging you is supposed to make things better between Nance and me.

 

Hector

My ex told me she was still grieving after our divorce and I wondered if I was grieving too and just didn’t feel it. Is that possible? Can you grieve without feeling it?

 

Tariq N.

When I pee it dribbles out. I used to have a steady stream. My doctor tells me I have an enlarged prostate.

 

Paul W.

Tell me about my aspirational clutter. I’ve got camping gear, fishing gear, scuba gear, rock-climbing gear, a long board, a short board, wetsuit, a mountain bike, a road bike, a home-brew kit, never been touched, an untouched saxophone, a post-hole digger, a treadmill, a rowing machine, a Serbo-Croatian language course, a half dead bonsai tree, a camera with an endless array of lenses, and stacks of how-to’s and historical novels. My question: should I have a garage sale?

 

Hank

My daughter’s stepfather bought her a Prius. I can’t believe he bought her a Prius. I could never buy her a Prius.

 

Max F reading again from Kunitz

Live in the layers, men, not on the litter. Live in the layers!

 

Stanley Kunitz called his poem “a summing-up poem.” Max enriches the meetings with the summing-up poems of poets of his generation and silently urges praise of his choices. This sounds judgmental. The secretary doesn’t mean to judge. He loves Max. Max checks in with him before he can slip out: “You good?” How can the secretary tell Max his wife’s biopsy has come back and, with it, news of an advanced stage of cancer? How can the secretary explain his wife’s crazy insistence that he find someone new, only to turn around and say, “You’d better not, Brian, if you know what’s good for you”?

“I do,” he tells her.

“You do what?”

“Know what’s good for me.”

“Go see your friends,” she says.

“I want to stay here with you.”

“Go,” she says, “and don’t take it personally.”

“I’m not taking it personally.”

“Then go,” she says. “Tell them what’s happening to me—to us—and take down whatever advice they offer, so as not to forget. Come home afterwards, no drinking, and crawl in bed. Try not to wake me, but yes, please do wake me. You can if you want. I want to see you all the time now. It’s complicated though, isn’t it? In the time we have left, our shared time, I’ll need more alone time than you’re used to. So go to your dumb ole meeting, Brian, and come home quick and, yes, I think I do want to hear: tell me what the men say about us.”