Mary Oliver’s “Messenger”

“Messenger” is the first poem in Mary Oliver’s Thirst and I loved it on first reading. Still I was hoping that I would find another poem that I loved more. Heck, I would have preferred that the volume end with the best poem rather than begin with it.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find another poem that better expressed my feelings about this stage in my life:

MESSENGER
 
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
 
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
 
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
 
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

 

In fact, my mind immediately went back to this poem when I saw these Wood Ducks at Waughop Lake this week:

Male Wood Duck

Female Wood Duck

If I were starting this blog over today, I could easily use the first line of this poem as my title rather than the line from Roethke’s poem. I might have to substitute the word Rhododendron or Dahlia rather than sunflowers, but I don’t have to tell you that if you’re a regular here.

I’ll admit my ego likes to think I’m at least “half-perfect,” but I’m no longer young, and even I’ve noted that beggars on the street often seem better dressed than I am.

If my photographs have any merit, it is because I am learning to “stand still and learning to be astonished.”

However, a more important reason I’ve hesitated to single out this poem from this 69 page collection is that it’s not exactly representative of a collection that also includes a number of poems that express her sense of loss of her life-long partner.

Mary Oliver’s Owl and Other Fantasies

While browsing the poetry section at my local bookstore recently I found Mary Oliver's Owl and Other Fantasies. Not surprisingly, considering my recent obsession with birds, I bought it. After all, I doubt it would suddenly appear at the appropriate moment like that if I wasn't intended to have it, now would it?

Although I wasn't particularly fond of a few of the early poems, ones that seemed a little too sentimental to suit my own view of nature, I was, perhaps ironically, attracted to:

SUCH SINGING IN THE WILD BRANCHES

It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves -
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness -
and that's when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree -
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing -
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky - all, all of them
were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn't last
for more than a few moments.
It's one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you've been there,
you're there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then - open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.


At first, I was a little put off by the anthropomorphic "all trim and neat for the new year, " and I'm sure most people would see this as a "very sentimental" view of nature, but the poem celebrates precisely the kind of moment I've felt once or twice in the last year. My first such experience followed a Buddhist meditation on listening. The next morning I took that focus with me on my daily hike through Pt. Defiance Park and was amazed at all the sounds I could not remember ever hearing before. For a few moments, I felt like I had been transported to an entirely new place, a more beautiful place than I had been before, and there are few places in the world more beautiful than an old-growth forest.

This walk actually inspired my current interest in birding because I wanted to know where those magical sounds were coming from. Strangely enough, the more I found out about where they were coming from, the more I enjoyed them. Although I seldom experience the kind of joy I felt that first day, I've never entered the woods again without being aware of the sounds of birds, birds so small that they are seldom seen.

Owl and Other Fantasies is a short book, only 65 pages and some of those pages are blank, so I won't quote another poem, but if I were going to do so it would a be a very different kind of poem, possibly one called "Hawk" that focuses on the swiftness of death and ends in the powerful lines "and then it/ turned into a white blade, which fell." The title poems on owls focus on this theme, and the book is infinitely richer because of that dual focus. Oliver doesn't reduce nature to some Walt Disney version of reality. If she had done so, I would have found it much harder to accept the optimism found in this poem.

Mary Oliver Poems from 1990 to 1992

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:

A BITTERNESS

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:

THE PONDS

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe
their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
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
is perfect?

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
unstoppable decay.

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.

Mary Oliver Poems from 1979 to 1986

I like a surprising number of Mary Oliver's poems in these sections, but, as usual, the ones I particularly like are the ones that I identify with the most. In fact, "The Fish" made me remember some particularly vivid childhood memories that I'd manage to forget:

THE FISH

The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.

Now, the first fish I ever caught were salmon, large salmon at that, and I still remember that I couldn't bring myself to hit the beautiful fish on the head with the small "bat" that my father brought for precisely that purpose. And I still remember feeling sorry for the fish flailing at the bottom of the boat desperately trying to get back in the water. Half tempted to throw it back, I was always relieved when my father would finally dispatch the salmon with a single blow.

I was particularly proud when mom announced we were eating Loren's salmon, proud that at six or seven I could contribute to the family. Salmon were an essential part of our diet, and, living in the Northwest, I findi it difficult not to identify with the great salmon runs.

And, in a very real sense, the last three lines "Out of pain,/ and pain, and more pain/ we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished/ by the mystery" capture some of the mystery that we in the Northwest identify with the great salmon runs where the salmon complete the mystical cycle of life and death, literally sacrificing themselves to propagate the next generation, and we, mere humans, can only stand in awe.

I suspect that our recent snowstorm, the first in several years here in the Pacific Northwest flatlands, has something to do with my liking of "First Snow:"

FIRST SNOW

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence
such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles; nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain-not a single
answer has been found-
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

Though there is certainly something about the immediacy of this poem that appeals to me, part of the appeal also comes from recognizing the opposite truth, that such immediacy cannot truly answer the ultimate questions that haunt us. At best, it merely holds them in abeyance, as temporary as the snow that coats the landscape.

Mary Oliver’s Poems from 1963 to 1979

When I first looked at Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems, I was a little disappointed that the new poems were at the front of the book and the older poems at the end. While that's convenient if you're picking up a book by a familiar poet, it's less convenient if you've just discovered a poet. Personally, I always want to read the earlier poems first because it seems helpful to me to see how a poet's ideas develop. With that in mind, I started reading the end of her book first in hope's of discovering basic themes that appear throughout her poetry.

Since some friends had noted that they didn't particularly like her poetry, I was pleasantly surprised by how just how much I did like her poems. Her first poems remind me a lot of Thomas Hardy, or, considering her "Three Poems for James Wright," her fellow Ohioan, Wright. Philosophically, she seems like a cross between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robinson Jeffers, especially in a poem like:

ON WINTER'S MARGIN

On winter's margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe's broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.

With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs;
By time snow's down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad!
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind;-

They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.

Perhaps I was drawn to the first stanza of the poem because I love having a bird feeder in the winter even if it means traipsing outside in the snow or rain every day to refill it, while flocks of small birds sit in the plum tree waiting for me to leave. For a little while, I, too, feel like "the prince of crumbs."

But it is really the second stanza, and even more, the third stanza, that make this poem memorable for me. The Emersonian view of nature is suddenly transformed into the darker view of nature, and man himself, projected in Robinson Jeffers' "Hurt Hawk." It's suddenly as if the wrens betray their own nature in order to survive through man's generosity, but the hawk circling all alone rejects man's help and, in doing so, "saves the world," or, at least saves it from man's domination of nature.

"Entering The Kingdom" reminds me of Emerson's famous "transparent eyeball," though I much prefer Oliver's metaphorical "lens of attention:"

ENTERING THE KINGDOM

The crows see me.
They stretch their glossy necks
In the tallest branches
Of green trees. I am
Possibly dangerous, I am
Entering the kingdom.

The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees-
To learn something by being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention.

But the crows puff their feathers and cry
Between me and the sun,
And I should go now.
They know me for what I am.
No dreamer,
No eater of leaves.

Crows are constant companions here at Tacoma's Point Defiance Park, never letting you forget you're an intruder, an outsider threatening what little wildlife manages to cling to existence in this little bit of Old Growth Forest preserved as a monument to what once was but can never truly be again.

And, though like Oliver, I often wish, and even attempt, to be one with nature, I, too, am forced to realize that it is little more than a dream, more fleeting than even the trees that disappear before my eyes. No matter how much we may wish otherwise, we are still outsiders, cut off from Nature, by our very nature, by our very ability to think, our ability to stand outside ourselves and observe nature.

Banished from this natural Garden of Eden, some seem bent on destroying the garden itself, while others of us dream of returning to a Oneness that is itself Edenic, risking constant banishment for a glimpse of that once and future kingdom.