“Deeper and deeper into the world”–– In Praise of Mary Oliver

Go not to the object; let it come to you….
What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.

–– Henry David Thoreau [i]

We need only unite our minds to the outer universe in a holy marriage,
a passionate love-match, and paradise is ours.

–––– M. H. Abrams [ii]

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.

–– Mary Oliver [iii]

 

The poet Mary Oliver departed this world on January 17, 2019, in her 84thyear. But her acquaintance with heaven began long before, in the fields and woods of her childhood.

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods,
and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught. [iv]

What Oliver would learn outdoors, in moments of grace, wonder, and the cultivated practice of paying attention, was the holiness and radiance of the natural world, the earthly paradise revealing itself to the receptive eye and heart.

What do I know
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun
lights up willingly. . . [v]

I imagine her early experiences of nature to be as formative as those of the young William Wordsworth:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence . . . our minds –
Especially the imaginative power –
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood. . .

Thus day by day my sympathies increased,
And thus the common range of visible things
Grew dear to me… [vi]

While Wordsworth’s epiphanies (“spots of time”) are ancestral to the sensibility of every modern nature poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence was even more direct in Oliver’s development. “I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy,” she said. “He has taught me as deeply as any writer could.” [vii] Emerson’s voracious engagement with the visible world led his mind––and his readers––into its invisible depths, where “the aroused intellect . . . finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds, that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.” [viii]

Persuaded that she lived in a world eager to show itself, Oliver pursued the life of a beholder:

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. [ix]

Writing nature––translating the world around us into words––is a complex, nuanced dance between the subjectivity of the self who writes what she sees and the elusive otherness of the not-self. How much of what we see is constructed and colored by our minds, our feelings, our cultural and aesthetic presuppositions? Is it possible to lay all that aside and become pure receptivity, a “lens of attention” which renounces the perceiver’s interpretive shaping of visible phenomena? Can we look without naming? Can we receive what is outside us just as it is and not only as we see it?

“I long to be,” said Oliver, “the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.” [x] But the very fact of longing admits defeat––such pure emptiness is unattainable in this world. Even the most receptive poet brings the particularity of self to her encounters with the wider world. And that is how it should be: our own way of seeing, whatever the proportions between shaping and receiving, is itself part of nature’s multiplicity. We do not stand over against nature in a binary opposition, but dwell within it, adding our own unique perception, feeling and response to the mix of Creation’s dance.

This requires humility and reticence on our part, so that nature does not become eclipsed by our response to it. What happens to the self in the encounter does matter, but whatever nature is prior to––or in excess of––that encounter must be honored and reverenced as well. As Sharon Cameron says in her study of Thoreau’s explorations of the world beyond his mind, “nature has an identity separate from what is felt about it.” [xi]

California’s uncompromising poet Robinson Jeffers thought it best to renounce the human altogether for the sake of an impersonal and indifferent grandeur:

Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from
humanity,
Let that doll lie…
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself . . . [xii]

Without sharing the extremes of Jeffers’ chilly “inhumanist” philosophy, Mary Oliver also wondered about the hindrances of ego, and spoke of “vanishing” into the world. “Maybe the world, without us,” she suggested, “is the real poem.” [xiii] But as scholar Laurence Buell argues, the personal is just as much a part of nature as everything else. The goal should not be the eradication of the ego, but “the suspension of ego to the point of feeling the environment to be at least as worthy of attention as oneself and of experiencing oneself as situated among many interacting presences” [xiv]

Wendell Berry describes the inseparable relation between self and world as a dance. Contemplating an old sycamore tree on his farm, he says, “We are moving in relationship, a design, that is definite – though shadowy to me – like people in a dance.” [xv] Oliver’s poetry would devote considerable attention to this choreography of interacting presences. “What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing, and it neither begins nor ends with the human world.” [xvi]

As with any significant relationship, the self can grow anxious about getting lost in the other, or violating the other’s integrity through domination, or drifting apart into an irredeemable state of alienation. All these have in fact occurred in our relations with the natural world. That is why a poet like Mary Oliver is so necessary. Her deep feeling for the world about her helps to repair the broken connections, retracing the forgotten path back to the garden. She leads us besides the still waters; her poems restore our soul.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily. . .
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.” [xvii]

It is not always a summer noon in her poetry. Her light is aware of the shadows, though her poems spend little time on her personal struggles. Writing only briefly of her parents’ toxicity, she says, “I mention them now, / I will not mention them again.”

It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.

. . . I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them the responsibility for my life. . .[xviii]

The shadows are deepest in “The Journey,” her most painful––and redemptive––poem.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice––

The feeling of a backward suction into a vortex of melancholy and suffocation is palpable and relentless. The way forward seems impossibly clogged with stones and fallen branches. It’s like a nightmare where you can’t escape because your body has forgotten how to run. The terror of it makes the poem’s redemptive turn all the more cathartic.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheet of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do the only thing you could do––
determined to save
the only life you could save. [xix]

However autobiographical this poem may be, its impact is universal, and I suspect that “The Journey” has saved more than one reader’s life. But trauma is a rare subject for Oliver. In her writing, the more common counterpoint to joy is not pain but mortality. If you are going to write about self and nature, your subject­­s––“all that glorious, temporary stuff” [xx] ––are ever on the verge of disappearing. However much we may love what is mortal, we need to remember, “when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.” [xxi]

Accommodating ourselves to mortality is one of the primary spiritual tasks. We may not know why death needs to happen, but we can hold it within a larger theological container, trusting there is something more to our story beyond the horizons of earthly experience.

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke. . .
He’s the ice caps, that are dying . . .[xxii]

I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.

But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement. . .[xxiii]

And still, whose heart is not broken every time a beautiful and beloved presence goes missing? Even an armful of peonies can bring tears, as we exclaim of their dearness, “their eagerness / to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are / nothing, forever? [xxiv]

“Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!” cries the poet, cherishing the priceless worth bestowed by impermanence, while at the same time suggesting something more lasting behind the veil of appearances.

The geese
flew on.
I have never
seen them again.

Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly. [xxv]

Thoreau, Oliver’s predecessor and kindred spirit, perfectly described the vocation of nature’s receptive and responsive beholders: “I am made to love the pond & the meadow as the wind is made to ripple the water.” [xxvi] Thank you, Mary Oliver, for the ripples you made during “your one wild and precious life.” They continue to carry us deeper and deeper into the world.

May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,

leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,

still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world. [xxvii]

 

 

All photographs by Jim Friedrich.

[i]Henry David Thoreau, Journal, September 13, 1852.

[ii]M. H. Abrams on the Romantic sensibility of William Wordworth, in Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973), 27.

[iii]“Terns,” in Mary Oliver, Devotions(New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 158. All Mary Oliver quotations will cite page numbers from this edition.

[iv]“Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer” (191).

[v]“Daisies” (176).

[vi]William Wordsworth,The Prelude(1799) 1.288-296 / 2.215-217.

[vii]Mary Oliver, “Emerson: An Introduction,” in Arthur S. Lothstein & Michael Brodrick, eds., New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century (Albany: State University of New York, 2008), 8.

[viii]Ralph Waldo Emerson, lecture on Dec. 19, 1838, q. in Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 8.

[ix]“Entering the Kingdom” (406).

[x]“Blue Iris”) 215

[xi]Sharon Cameron, Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal(New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 35.

[xii]Robinson Jeffers, “Signpost,” q. in Laurence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 162.

[xiii]“From the Book of Time” (234).

[xiv]Buell, 178.

[xv]Wendell Berry, q. in Scott Slovic, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez(Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 127.

[xvi]Mary Oliver, Blue Pastures(1995), q. in Christian McEwen, World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2011), 167.

[xvii]“When I Am Among the Trees” (123).

[xviii]“Flare” (230, 231).

[xix]“The Journey” (349-50).

[xx]“On Meditating, Sort of” (22).

[xxi]“In Blackwater Woods” (390).

[xxii]“At the River Clarion” (86-87).

[xxiii]“Sometimes” (104).

[xxiv]“Peonies” (298).

[xxv]“Snow Geese” (180-181).

[xxvi]Journal,Nov. 21, 1850.

[xxvii]“Prayer” (84).

The Mind of Winter

Bainbridge Island, morning (February 10, 2019).

This year’s winter has been intense across much of North America. Even here in Puget Sound, where snow is mostly occasional and swiftly gone, the drifts lie heavy and deep upon the earth. For those of us accustomed to the Northwest’s seasonal grays and greens, so much whiteness is otherworldly.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–– Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

Stevens strove to attain the mind of winter, where all the poet’s fictions, the “pathetic fallacy” by which romantics color the world with their own feelings, are stripped away, leaving only the bareness of uninterpreted bedrock reality. The tree without the seductive flutter of fresh spring leaves, or the gaudy makeup of autumn color. Only behold “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” No more delusions or illusions. A wind that is only wind and not the sound of our keening hearts.

Emerson also stood in that bare place, and in what Harold Bloom calls “the central passage in American literature…the crucial epiphany of our literature’s Central Man,” he experienced what he called a vanishing of ego: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” This pure transparency is itself a fiction – the self and its experience are still being celebrated––but it is a brave leap into the mind of winter nonetheless: to see the world as it is, not as we would have it. Let go of our scripts. Stop coloring the world with our desire. Wait without thought, without premature description, for the world to reveal itself in time, to say whatever it wants to say to us.

Although our images of an earthly paradise are painted with the colors of spring and summer, the blank expanses of the Polar regions have haunted our imagination with equal force. In Moby Dick, all that whiteness struck Ishmael as an erasure of everything familiar, revealing “all other earthly hues…the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods…the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls” to be “subtle deceits…whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel house within.”

Not everyone who journeyed to the regions of ice was as dour as Melville. Many were inspired by their experience of the sublime. Sir Ernest Shackleton, writing of his own harrowing sojourn in Antarctica, said, “We had pierced the veneer of outside things…We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.” But as the history of Polar exploration tells us, such knowledge comes with a cost.

When Amundsen dashed to the South Pole and back with efficient ease and no loss of life, the English admirers of the tragic Scott expedition, who had “died like gentlemen” in the heart of the white void, criticized him for making it too easy and missing the point of full immersion in the mind of winter. “Are these people mad?” was Amundsen’s laconic response.

Bainbridge Island, evening (February 10, 2019).

Literary critic Northrup Frye has described the yearly cycle in terms of mythic archetypes. Spring is dawn, birth, renewal – the realm of comedy. Summer is noon, the season of romance. Autumn is sunset, death, the sphere of tragedy. And winter is darkness and dissolution, whose theatrical form is satire -the naked truth unadorned by projection, uncolored by affection. The cold regarding gaze. And the implication is, “We won’t get fooled again.”

But we will, and that is the endearing nature of the cycle, the turning of the wheel that will take us through comedy, romance and tragedy all over again. We haven’t really forgotten our hard-won knowledge, our steely mind of winter. It’s just that life cannot––should not––be lived without the bright hues of our affections. And so we will keep risking illusion for the sake of the ecstasies that the unromantic Amundsens never taste.

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.

 

 

 

 

Consumed by Love: The Flames of Candlemas

Giovanni Bellini, The Presentation in the Temple (1459)

Today is Candlemas, the 40thday after the Nativity. Its liturgical origins are obscure, but its blazing processions of candles in the winter dark not only made a glorious end to the extended Christmas celebrations of less hurried times, it also provided a brilliant preview of the resurrection fires of the Easter Vigil. Although it still may allow, for a few liturgically-minded procrastinators, a generous extension of the deadline for boxing up our holiday decorations, Candlemas is rarely observed in American homes and churches. Our minds are fixed on groundhogs and football, not the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.

Still, I would gladly join a candlelight procession to a holy place on this night, to beseech the Light of the World “to pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendor, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled.”

In the Eastern churches, Candlemas is called “The Meeting,” highlighting the moment when two old souls, Simeon and Anna, met the One for whom they had waited all their lives. Simeon had been told “by the Holy Spirit” that he would not see death before the coming of the Messiah. Every time he went to the Temple, he wondered, “Could this be the Promised Day?” Whatever he may have imagined––the House of God filled with smoke and shining angels, a mighty king arriving in noisy triumph––the long-expected day arrived like any other, without the slightest fanfare.

Simeon liked to go to the Temple early, when it was still blissfully quiet and uncrowded. He began his prayers as usual, but his attention wandered when the entrance of a young couple and their baby caught his eye. He could tell they were country people, the way they looked with such amazement at the vast interior. As they passed by him, he smiled kindly, then closed his eyes to resume his prayers.

But everything within him shouted, “Look! This is the time. Don’t miss it.” As soon as he opened his eyes again, he knew. He didn’t know how, but he knew. That child, cradled in the arms of a peasant girl, was the One!

“Please,” he said. “Please wait!” The couple stopped and turned to face him. Simeon held out his arms, and the girl, as though they had both rehearsed it a hundred times, handed him the baby without the least hesitation. And gazing into those infant eyes, seeing there the future of God’s hopes for all the world, Simeon began to murmur the prayer which the faithful have sung ever since at close of day:

Lord, now at last you release your servant
to depart in peace,
for my eyes have seen the Savior,
just as you have promised.

Then Anna, the old prophetess who had camped out in the Temple for many years, stepped out of the shadows to add her own confirming praises. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

The Nunc Dimittis of these two old saints, near the end of their lives, being granted the grace of completion on that Temple morning, is beautifully echoed in a passage from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter…

 

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

It is a custom at Candlemas to bless the candles for the rest of the year. In 2003, I happened to be in London’s Cathedral of St. Paul for a similar rite, when members of the Wax Chandlers Livery Company, in a practice dating back to the fifteenth century, brought long candles to be blessed for their service on the high altar.

The preacher on that occasion, Canon Martin Warner, took comfort in the fact that when his own brief candle should come to an end, another candle, the Paschal Candle of Easter, would burn over his coffin, declaring by its resurrection light that each of us is but wax “being consumed by the incredible flame of love that is God’s own self, melted not into oblivion but into the freedom of attaining our perfection and deepest longings.”

A candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing. Even so, the fire that consumes it bears Love’s name, and does Love’s work. Whatever is offered up shall receive its true being. Whatever is lost shall be found anew.

Fire of heaven, make us ready.