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Poetry and Poetics

In Memory

(Published on the web site of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment,) In Memoriam: Mary Oliver, 1935–2019

By Mark C. Long, Keene State College

The poet Mary Oliver passed away on January 17, 2019. An honorary member of our association, Oliver published over thirty books of poetry and prose that brought the concerns of ASLE to more readers than any other poet of her generation.

Oliver published her first book, No Voyage and Other Poems, in 1963. Over the next fifty years, Oliver offered us new ways to think about the gift of human life and the fragile beauty of the more-than-human world. As the poems kept coming, Oliver rekindled the uses of poetry in our culture—in lyrics, sequences, a book-length poem, prose poems, and essays. And her audience kept expanding, too, her book sales, running into the millions, reminding us of the singular power of her distinctive voice.

Oliver’s life and work are at once inspiration and provocation—most acutely to those of us preoccupied with environmental concern, equity, and justice. How does our thinking and writing, our art and our activism, reach the audiences who most need us? How do we live convincing lives for those who need to be inspired? “Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do,” Oliver reminded us. “Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.”

Although Oliver once stood in that water, and found her way upstream, her generous provocations are for us—whether we find ourselves in a stream or on a city sidewalk. Her belief that we can learn to love the world came from Walt Whitman, she told us, for his “message was clear from the first and never changed: that a better, richer life is available to us, and with all his force he advocated it both for the good of each individual soul and for the good of the universe.”

This potential for goodness in a world that appears otherwise is the heartbeat of Oliver’s advocacy. It is no wonder, then, that Oliver’s poems come into our lives across experiences, generations, and occasions—as children, adolescents, young adults, middle-age and older adults, in schools and libraries, family and community gatherings, and places of worship.

She prodded us to be in the world—with awareness, imagination, compassion, and agency. She excited our consciences and awakened our emotions. And she offered those of us more familiar with thinking about poems something less familiar: an invitation to think with poems that wrestle with our commonplaces about the world, honestly and openly, to guide us into the material and spiritual condition of our lives.

“Here is a story / to break your heart. / Are you willing? With these lines Oliver begins the poem “Lead,” a story of loons dying in the harbor “of nothing we could see,” a poem that ends with the story she has been sharing with us for over fifty years:


I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

 __________________________________________________________________

An informal gathering to honor the literary and cultural contributions of the poet Mary Oliver will be held from 12:15-1:15 pm on June 28, 2019 during the 2019 ASLE Conference. The reading will take place in the T. Elliot Weier Redwood Grove located in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. Participants are invited to read one of Oliver’s poems, or a selection from her prose. Brief comments on Oliver’s work are also welcome. If you plan to attend this event, please RSVP Mark C. Long at mlong@keene.edu.

In Medias Res

“Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Montaigne, or the Skeptic,” Representative Men: Seven Lectures (1850)

A couple of years ago my friend Tony, a retired colleague, mentioned a singer and songwriter, Greg Brown, who he thought I would be interested to know. Tony told me that in “Two Little Feet” Brown sings of a writer I began reading in my late teens, John Muir. When I followed up on his suggestion, I heard Brown singing these words:

John Muir walked away into the mountains
In his old overcoat a crust of bread in his pocket
We have no knowledge and so we have stuff and
Stuff with no knowledge is never enough to get you there
It just won’t get you there

Then this fall a student coming to terms with the work of Gary Snyder titled one of her essays, Tumble us Like Scree. Well, I first thought, scree is the name for an unpredictable and shifting surface where I have spent a good deal of time and where I am quite comfortable. Because Anna included in her blog post an embedded link to You Tube I was able to locate the phrase in the lyrics of Greg Brown’s Two Little Feet: 

Tumble us like scree let us holler out our freedom like a wolf across a valley like a kid lost in a game
No time no name gonna miss that plane again

We were reading Gary Snyder’s 1974 book Turtle Island. Anna started by saying that “the distinction between the ‘natural’ and ‘human’ worlds is complex.” She then added, “It is often completely accepted that humans exist above the rest of the world. People do not question the hierarchy of being. Gary Snyder’s book, Turtle Island, addresses that distinction as one that is a complete social construct.”

So far so good, I most likely thought to myself. For one of organizing ideas in Turtle Island is that we are a part of the natural world. “We are it— / it sings through us” is Snyder’s way of explanation in lines from the poem “By Frazier Creek Falls.” Nature is not a place we visit. It is home. What Anna noticed was that he exemplifies this message in The Bath, a poem that she describes asa description of an inherent, instinctive act that spans species–bathing.” She adds, “Most animals bathe their young, and that is exactly what this family is doing. He and his wife are cleaning their son, taking care of him in the most primal of ways.”

Already anticipating Snyder’s essays in The Practice of the Wild that we would read together later in the semester, Anna pointed out that “Snyder always comes back to the body.” This is because, she writes, “the body is the best way to see that humans are natural. Our discomfort with sex, nakedness, and our general relationships with our bodies come from this idea that we are somehow removed from the natural world. A body is a constant, physical reminder that we are a part of the rest of the earth.” Even better, I most likely thought as I read these words.

But then the essay gets really interesting. The full post lives on Anna’s blog. But I will quote from it here as I am not sure that her course blog will remain active once she moves on from college:

In the poem “The Bath,” the fifth stanza reads,

Or me within her,
Or him emerging,
this is our body

These lines are so simple, and yet they encompass a human being’s physical relationship with the world and with her own body. These three lines–the act of sex, the birth of a child, the acceptance of a physical place in the universe–are incredibly written. The simplicity of Snyder’s writing is an insightful nod to the obviousness of our relationship with our earth and all the rest who live here. He can make a hugely profound statement just with three lines. It is the circle of life shown through the female body. It is two bodies becoming one and creating another. This is one of the most natural actions that exists–reproduction as a connection between us and the rest of the world.

These are sensitive and insightful comments—the kind of comments that remind us why we read poems. She continues:

Snyder describes bathing his son, “through and around the globes and curves of his body.” I have to admit that when I first read this poem, all the vivid description of the body of the child and his mother definitely took me off guard and left me feeling uncomfortable. However, after talking over the poem in class and thinking a lot more about it, it has come to be one of my favorite poems in the book. I think that moving past that discomfort is the point of this writing. The only reason that this blatant description of naked bodies makes us uncomfortable is because of society’s collective decision that we are not animals. This delusion that we are not only so far removed from, but that we are better than the non-human world does not allow us to see ourselves for what we really are–animals with bodies. We stigmatize anything that connects us to nature, especially our own bodies.

In this series of disclosures is a lesson in self-awareness and recognition that leads to a deeper awareness: that the sexual language of the poem is in no way gratuitous but an essential part of a whole. The commentary continues:

The last stanza in this poem reads,

This is our body. Drawn up crosslegged by the flames
drinking icy water
hugging babies, kissing bellies,

Laughing on the Great Earth

Come out from the bath.

These last few words of Snyder’s writing tie up the poem with a blatant connection to the earth. In the first two lines of this stanza he combines a natural element with a human action. He writes of sitting next to a fire and consuming water. By making these active statements about fire and water, Snyder smoothly connects people with the earth itself. Then he moves on to more active statements, this time about human bodies. This transition makes it clear that there is no existential difference between us and the elements–we all exist in this world. He invites us to ‘come out’ and see what he sees.

The repetition of the question, “is this our body?” and of the answer “this is our body” echo Snyder’s commentary on our connections with our physicality. By repeating these lines throughout the physical description of the naked act of bathing, he addresses the fact that this poem is probably making the reader uncomfortable. He knows that it will, but by asking the question of whether or not this is our body, he draws the reader into the issue. Everyone who will ever read this poem will be able to connect with it on a physical level because we all have bodies. We are all made up of matter and atoms. We all exist in the same world no matter how much we may have convinced ourselves that we do not.

The most rewarding part of this pedagogical story is that the story does not stop here. For in the upper-level class I am teaching this semester I have the privilege to once again be working with Anna. And in a recent essay she returned to that moment when she was coming to terms with the poem “The Bath.”

She is retelling of the story of picking up Turtle Island as she is commenting on Snyder’s presence in The Practice of the Wild:

At first, it confused me. Before reading any of his essays, I delved into the poetry in his book of collected works, Turtle Island. His poem, The Bath, was my introduction to the voice of Gary Snyder.

Honestly, it was a little shocking. Because of how strong and strange of a reaction I had to reading it, I decided to write an essay on that very poem. I was so utterly confused about how I felt about the poem that I remember reading it aloud to one of my friends. She was not a fan. I reached the end of the second stanza, a line which reads, “the space between the thighs I reach through, cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind, soapy tickle,” and she told me to stop. I believe her exact response was something like, “that is some freaky shit.”

Well, it is some “freaky shit.” But the route from confusion and discomfort–from sharing to the description of the lines of the poem as “some freaky shit”–leads to another place:

The more I thought about his words and the distinct choice to include a vivid description of bodies, the more I realized that it was my own, personal bias that was creating this block between me and the poem. As I read it again and again, each time trying to distance myself from my gut reaction, the more I began to like the poem. I could hear Snyder talking and I came closer to understanding what he was saying. The key part of this poem is the line, “this is our body.” Throughout most of his writing, poems or prose, he is concerned with the divide between human beings and ‘nature’–our own nature, the idea of the ‘wild’ that we are so removed from.

The story might have ended here. But last week we discussed this piece of writing in a workshop on the essay in my upper-level seminar this semester. We were talking about writing on the open web, and I said that “open access to your writing can bring to the surface insights we might not otherwise see: for reading a writer thinking with (in this case, a poem) can help us move through the process of learning together.” One example of collaboration, I went on to say, is

Anna’s thinking in her post Connections. What I value are connections she is making, the chronicle of her developing understanding (of the writing of Gary Snyder), and her sharing this story in a draft version of her essay. Her essay makes visible for us dimensions of collaboration. In fact, when I read her piece, I found myself collaborating with her on what turned into the most recent Teacher Talk page post called The Generosity of Art. 

And so here we are, in media res. I am writing about myself writing about a student who is writing about her own writing on the writing of Gary Snyder—and you are reading the words she has written, the words I have written about her words, and the writing about the words about words.

Where do we go from here?

Photo credits: Mark C. Long

Extravagance and Possibility

Mark C. Long. Upstream: Selected Essays. By Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. Cloth. $26.00 and Felicity. By Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. 81 pp. Cloth. $24.95. Published in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2017)

A child went forth in Mary Oliver’s new book of essays, Upstream. The child was alone in the woods. She was wandering upstream, away from difficulties, the “sorrow and mischance and rage” (14) around her that she felt deeply but was powerless to change. One day the little girl walked the wrong way, and was lost, but was “slopping along happily in the stream’s coolness. So maybe it was the right way after all,” Oliver surmises. “If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again” (5). And, as this child went forth, her heart opened, and opened again, in the world of books. She read by day and into the night. She built bookshelves. She thought “about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes” (15). And she took solace in friendship among writers. “I never met any of my friends, of course, in a usual way—they were strangers, and lived only in their writings,” she admits. “But if they were only shadow-companions, still they were constant, and powerful, and amazing” (9), Oliver writes, in the essay, “My Friend Walt Whitman.” These writers, she admits, “changed the world” (9).

From these childhood experiences is fashioned a lesson to share, “that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart” (14-15). Drawing on the earlier collections Blue Pastures, Winter Hours, and Long Life, Oliver gathers essays on some of the writers who made a difference. She recalls the moral purpose of Emerson, who refused to turn away from the world; Wordsworth’s praise of both the beauty and the strangeness of the world; Poe’s rushing forward with the “wild courage of despair”; and Whitman’s unshakeable, egalitarian belief in an “existence in which man’s inner light is neither rare nor elite, but godly and common, and acknowledged” (100). For Oliver, the books of these authors are alive with extravagance and possibility, “the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self–quarrels, his own predicament” (68-69).

The poems collected in Felicity are songs of extravagance and possibility— and their opinions and persuasions have designs on the reader. The title of the first section, “The Journey,” and the epigraph from Rumi, “You broke the cage and flew,” suggest what will follow. In “The World I Live In,” Oliver writes, “I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs. / The world I live in and believe in / is wider than that” (11). In “Leaves and Blossoms along the Way,” Oliver challenges her readers to live and believe in this wider world. “To understand many things you must reach out / of your own condition,” she insists (18). And in the final line of “Whistling Swans” Oliver explains to her readers her hope that in reaching out a person can become open to a world of possibilities beyond the self: “So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly. / Take from it what you can” (29). These poems, like so many Oliver has shared with her readers over the years, offer invitations, or opportunities, to reach beyond the self, wherever one might happen to be.

The sequence of lyric poems in the second section of Felicity traces the “invisible / and powerful and uncontrollable /and beautiful and possibly even /unsuitable” experiences we call love. This section, entitled “Love,” opens with an epigraph from Rumi. “Someone who does not run / toward the allure of love / walks a road where nothing lives” (41). In the poem “The First Day,” Oliver recalls the “warm sting of possibility,” the opening of the heart, “the spreading warmth of joy” (45). In “No, I’d Never Been to This Country,” she acknowledges the risk and embraces the commitment we undertake in loving another person: “I didn’t know where the roads / would lead me. No, I didn’t intend to turn back” (49). A group of short poems celebrates a life moving along its journey and the discovery, in its unfolding, of abiding happiness. “Everything that was broken has / forgotten its brokenness,” she explains (61). And “Pond,” a sunny-summer-August-day poem, concludes with the lines, “All my life I have been able to feel this happiness, / except whatever was not happiness, / which I also remember. / Each of us wears a shadow” (67). The poems at once acknowledge the weight of our inescapable shadows, our “self-quarrels and predicaments,” and the beautiful and mysterious ways love enters into, and shapes, our lives.

Like much of Oliver’s work, Upstream and Felicity explore the challenges and opportunities we face amidst transformation and change. In the essay of gratitude that concludes Upstream, “Provincetown,” Oliver celebrates the “perfect sufficiency,” the sweetness and simplicity of the place she would call home for fifty years. At the same time, she describes “the terrible change,” the “slow but harsh” transformation of her beloved home. “The tourist business was in,” she adds, and the town “became a place to live for a while, and to spend money. Not so much in which to live a life” (174). What Oliver makes of these changes is neither bitter nor sentimental. “This town had to find another way to live,” she decides. “It was just, well, different” (175).

And so it goes—I guess. The world changes. You change. You make your way the best you can. You use the resources you have. What I can say, with more confidence, is that one of those resources, as these books once again remind us, is the writing of Mary Oliver.

Advance Access publication March 31, 2017doi:10.1093/isle/isx017
VC The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. All rights reserved.
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