Sunday, November 15, 2015

Felicity by Mary Oliver and Other Poetry

One morning recently I awoke to hear Krista Tippett, host of the radio show On Being, conduct a rare interview with the poet Mary Oliver. Oliver is now eighty years old , and has a new book of poetry called Felicity. The poems in it are shorter, overall, than those in her earlier work, and they have a gladness that seems fulfilled or nearly so. Oliver exhibits a passion for the world and a confidence that only the old and very aware among us can express.

The collection called Felicity has one of the most beautiful covers I have seen in a very long time. It is a close up reproduction of an oil painting in which the brushstrokes and color variations can be seen: a large, seemingly infinite gray sky, a sliver of tan ground and a charcoal smudge in between for trees. We might even take the gray sky for an ocean in the distance, stretching out so far the horizon is not visible. No, wait, a lightening of the gray near the top of the painting--could it be a distant horizon? The depth and the beauty of the color gray stops our breath as we gaze, searching it for variation, for a clue, either of weather, or of substance.

Oliver often writes about the natural world and how that informs her own experience in it. She lived for many years on Cape Cod, observing the seasons, the wild things, life and death.
"To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go."
--from In Blackwater Woods, American Primitive(1978)
In the past couple years Oliver has moved from that long-time residence on Cape Cod to the south of Florida. The sea, and outside the house, the birds and animals are still there, though the landscape is changed. "I am trying very hard to love the mangroves." Oliver also spoke with Tippett in her radio interview of the difficulty of her childhood and how she “escaped…barely.” In her work she has written

You are going to grow up
and in order for that to happen
I am going to have to grow old
and then I will die, and the blame
will be yours.


He wanted a body
so he took mine
Some wounds never vanish.
--from Hum, Hum, A Thousand Mornings(2012)
Gradually Oliver's work reflects a kind of peace, and faith. "If I have any secret stash of poems, anywhere, it might be about love, not anger," is a quote from Oliver on the cover of her new collection. She struggled to overcome lasting damage and in that struggle has produced great work and come through the other side. The horrors we face, the constraints under which we labor, could they be the very thing that incubates art? In the struggle to survive, some among us burst forth with great deeds, great literature, great music, or great art. That struggle makes us who we are.
“Without empathy, we are only reporting.” from the Krista Tippett interview

It is difficult to choose a favorite collection from among Oliver's work, but aside from her latest, Felicity, I have the most markers in A Thousand Mornings which often contains the barely concealed knife edge of despair
"What keeps us from falling down, our faces
on the ground; ashamed, ashamed?"
--from The Morning Paper, A Thousand Mornings(2012)
but also includes
"Then a wren in the privet began to sing
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not
…I just listened, my pen in the air."
--from I Happened to be Standing, A Thousand Mornings
Sometimes Oliver gives us despair and its reverse in one poem:
melancholy leaves me breathless.

…Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Two or three times in my life I discovered love.
Each time it seemed to solve everything.
Each time it solved a great many things
but not everything
Yet left me as grateful as if it had indeed, and
thoroughly, solved everything.
--from Sometimes, Red Bird(2008)
Oliver is not afraid to speak of things that matter
”I want to sing a song
for a body I saw
and without a name

but clearly someone young
who had not yet lived his life
and never would.
How shall I do this?

he had a weapon in his hands.
I think
he could have been no more than twenty.

I think, whoever he was
of whatever country,
he might have been my brother,
were the world different.

…if I had known him,
on his birthday,
I would have made for him
a great celebration.”
--from Iraq, Red Bird
Mary Oliver made me cry when I read a poem in her latest book, but whether it was tears of sadness or of joy, I do not know.
”People do it,
some out of desperation,
others out of greed.

They steal.

The very powerful and clever
might steal a whole house,
or a million dollars.
It’s been done.

But what does it matter?
Love is the one thing the heart craves
and love is the one thing
you can’t steal.
--A House, or a Million Dollars, Felicity
And then there is the wonder of this coincidence to see, among the leaves in the forest:
"I once saw two snakes,
northern racers,
hurrying through the woods,
their bodies
like two black whips
lifting and dashing forward;
in perfect concert
they held their heads high
and swam forward
on their sleek bellies;
under the trees,
through wines, branches,
over stones,
through fields of flowers,
they traveled
like a matched team
like a dance
like a love affair."
--The Snakes, American Primitive
To have someone observe, and then speak with equal beauty of such a thing is a gift to us.

Oliver ends Felicity with one of her own poems, a poem about happiness in the world. But just before that she gives us a few lines of a poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, which originally appears to have no title. Oliver calls it Felicity:
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I’ll meet you there."
It is cooling, in this time of heat and war and chaos, to hear a voice that transcends time and hatreds. The rest of Rumi's meditation reads:
"When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other' doesn’t make any sense."
Here Coleman Barks talks about Rumi’s idea of love, that Mary Oliver so admires and embodies in her work.

I have an aunt, a native New Englander transplanted south, who sounds so close to Mary Oliver's voice, philosophy, lifestyle it could have been my aunt speaking. Both women answer "What is the gift I should bring to the world?" in a way that has made us richer. "What we should be doing is make a moral planet."
"Attention is the beginning of devotion." --M. Oliver, from the Krista Tippett interview

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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