Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mary Oliver - A Sort of a Review

Mary Oliver is a poet who at once shows me a way into my own writing and knocks the pen right out of my hand. I read The Leaf and the Cloud: A Poem (Da Capo Press 2001) after a long period of life getting in the way of writing (sometimes that just happens). A door opened. I wrote Walk the Wildly dipping into a backlog of scribblettes, and other poems, which became Walk the Wildly published by Picaro.

This year I discovered the poem Small Bodies (online). It’s currently my favourite poem. As I’ve mentioned in another post it brought focus to otherwise slightly shambolic thoughts and put me on track for next year’s writing and a collection for 2012. (Well laid plans, touch wood).

Read the poem online, ordered the book Red Bird (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) from a bookshop (just for the record). As I read the whole collection it sucks the breath out of me and … I have put my pen down.

Mary Oliver writes about the natural world in a way that leaves you in no doubt of its immensity or of the joy it brings her. Indeed you wonder if it is her whole reason for living – the thing that keeps her alive, makes her alive. In Summer Story (p. 25), watching as the ‘…humming bird/sinks its face’ she becomes ‘a small bird/with a terrible hunger’ herself, and ‘the leaves and the blossoms,/and, like them, I am full of delight, and shaking.’

The fox in Straight Talk from Fox (p. 11) makes you salivate uncomfortably as you read about ‘fat ducks in their bright feathers…/the vole sucking the sweet of the apple,/or the rabbit with his fast-beating heart…’ the latter later ‘caught in one good teeth-whacking hit…’ This is the animal that watches us in all our seasons and knows very well who he is and who he’d rather be.

At first, crow-life in Crow Says (p. 33), seems simple: ponderings on corn in the field, ‘simple beak talk’, but soon you feel the pain of the crow who has ‘forgotten…even the pile of sticks in which I was born’ and see the sulking, dreaming, remembering life, the vague feeling.

In Red with the gray fox ‘singing her death song’ and Showing the Birds with ‘so many wonderful things to show you in the museum drawers’ Mary Oliver makes us confront the impact we have on small beings. In Small Bodies (p. 31) she is so afraid for them she finds it hard even to trust them to her god.

She is afraid for how her culture will be remembered in Of the Empire (p. 46): ‘… that spoke/little if at all about the quality of life for/people (other people), for dogs, for rivers.’ In Iraq she wants ‘to sing a song/for a body I saw/…clearly someone young/

From this collection we know she has love in her life and a dog called Percy who has no time for books and she drank pond water flavoured with the feet of ducks. I also see she has A River Far Away and Long Ago (p. 22). ‘The river, of my childhood’ it begins. That’s my line! I appreciate it may be the ‘line’ of anyone with a river, but I have been carrying it with me for so many years. I even took it with me on a long yearned for return visit to Ireland, looking for the poem it belongs to. I still have to find it. Discover it. Ask if it is as Mary Oliver’s: ‘that endlessly kind, that enduring.’ Means I have to pick up my pen again …

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