Reading Mary Oliver’s later poems is somewhat of a rollercoaster ride between total despair and sheer elation, always driven by an awareness of death. At it’s best, this awareness produces some excellent poems. One of my favorites, though I’m not quite sure why, is:
I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
I believe music had to be melancholy or not at all.
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.
It’s easy to become bitter in this world, a world of often unattainable promises, a world of sorrow. No matter how justified the bitterness, though, bitterness cannot lead to happiness. If all you learn from life is bitterness, you will “lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser and unassuaged.” Oliver suggests, at least in the last line, and in many of her poems, that the best way to escape such bitterness is to lose yourself in the “wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.” The last line, at least for me, however, cannot dispell the darkness of this poem. It is the bitterness that drives the poem not the abandonment to nature. It is a “bitterness” that seems to lie at the edge of many of Oliver’s poems.
Perhaps it’s Oliver’s abilty to recognize the imperfection of life, to have experienced and acknowleged the hardships, and yet to transcend them in the end:
are so perfect
I can hardly believe
their lapped light crowding
Nobody could count all of them-
the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch
only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided-
and that one wears an orange blight-
and this one is a glossy cheek
half nibbled away-
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled-
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing-
that the light is everything-that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.
Although it’s foolish to deny reality when faced with it, I, too, seek to believe in that perfectibility. When faced with a clear-cut forest blanketed in snow, it would be easy to remember that it is a false beauty belied by the stumps and rubble that lie underneath the snow, but I prefer to see only the beauty of that moment. Individual events in our lives may have been demeaning and distasteful, but they do not diminish the beauty of life as a whole. Life is always greater than the sum of its parts.