Nature poet Mary Oliver died this week. She was known for her poems about emotional survival and the natural world.
Oliver struggled for years with cancer, but continued to produce. Her last volume of new poetry, Felicity, was about love. Her same-sex relationship with Molly Cook lasted over fifty years until Cook’s death in 2005.
Animals featured largely in Oliver’s work. In 2013 she published a book of dog poems followed the next year by another book of animal poems entitled Blue Horses.
Much of Oliver’s poetry, including her nature poetry, celebrated the resilience of the human spirit.
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. [continued]
Early the other day, while I was reading the nature poet Pattiann Rogers, my pancakes got a bit scorched in the griddle. I probably should not mention my name in the same post as Pattiann Rogers, lest comparisons be made, but the incident reminded me of this poem I wrote at this time last year.
Breakfast at My House
I am eating poems for breakfast.
Giraffes, dragonflies, and polar bears stalk my kitchen. It is spring, it is winter, it is sunset, it is too late – another burned pancake goes in the trash.
I ponder food as a metaphor for wisdom while the cat chows down on the scrambled tofu. The poignancy of life’s impermanence hits home as the coffee grows cold.
You can’t eat poetry, said my mother, but I know you can, because I know what poetry tastes like. It is soggy cereal and scorched potatoes. It is charred polenta. It is over-steeped tea.
Millions of people are eating poems for breakfast, and it is the only meal that leaves you really full.
Reminder:The Magical History of the Cat, a free webinar with yours truly, is this Monday November 10 at 7:00 Eastern Time. Here is the web page for the event. You may attend live or listen to the recording at your convenience. You must pre-register to attend or to stream the recording. You can register through the webinar webpage or through this link.
They say you are a mystery They say you have secrets you will not give up I say they have not tried to understand
I will study you Catalogue your movements Write your words Analyse your tastes Cater to your preferences
I will let you decide whether we will pet or not pet play or not play I will let you hide in your solitude I will accept chastisement when I leave the house I will be the human you rely on and I will apologize for being human
I will wonder why I am behaving so oddly and friends will wonder when I became so strange
Then I can say with authority that you are mystery Then I can speak honestly about secrets that cannot be known
You come for answers and don’t even knowwhat the questions are.But you ask questions.Vague and general; specific and focused. You have questions questions questions andcan’t decide which questions to ask first. The questionsspew like the chip chip chip of the chippingsparrow, gathering momentum, each chip meaning nothingon its own.The best oraclesalso know the questions.Listen.
And if I’ve written in passion,Live, Julia! what was I writingbut my own pledge to myselfwhere the love of women is rooted?And what was I invokingbut the matrices we weaveweb upon web, delicate raftersflung in audacity to the prairie skies(from “For Julia in Nebraska,” in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far)Adrienne Rich, the poet whose work exemplified the journey of twentieth century feminists to find an authentic individual and collective voice, died March 27th at 82. Her groundbreaking collection, The Dream of a Common Language, spoke to the soul of the emerging vision of women’s poetry. Her nonfiction work, Of Women Born took on the sentimentalized and trivialized subject of motherhood and examined it as a central influence on women’s lives and perspective.I did not know Rich, although I heard her perform many times. I chatted briefly with her once after a reading, and I recognized her occasionally in San Francisco or Santa Cruz – too shy to go up and speak to her, though she seemed open and approachable. Rich did not exude any air of self-importance, despite being recognized and celebrated as a gifted writer from an early age. Rich did, however, convey a sense that we – each of us women – were vitally important.The salient experience of being female in Western patriarchy is one of unimportance. Our thoughts, our feelings, our needs, our hopes, what we do, what we say, what happens to us – all are uninteresting, unimportant and irrelevant. If we sound shrill at times – to men, to other women, even to ourselves – it’s because we always feel like we’re never being heard.And Rich wrote as if she heard us. Rich could make the word “we” seem not like a conglomeration of unnamed entities but a symbiotic web of nourishment. She carried the conviction of our central, vital, incontrovertible importance. Not in spite of being women, but because.Rich was not, however, an unwavering source of upliftment. There was too much pain in her work. She suffered most of her life with arthritis, yet the pain that came through her work was an emotional one, almost an impersonal one, the pain of humanity and especially of women. It was too much to take in heavy doses, and I found myself drifting away from Rich’s poetry – and then being pulled back occasionally to the strength of that conviction: that our deeds, our experiences and our dreams are vital to the continuity of history – and to all that lies ahead.