I love the line of Flaubert about observing things very intensely. I think our duty as writers begins not with our own feelings, but with the powers of observing.
AWARDS: Mary Oliver’s fourth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She received the Shelley Memorial Award; a Guggenheim Fellowship; an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award; the Christopher Award and the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for House of Light; the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems; a Lannan Foundation Literary Award; and the New England Booksellers Association Award for Literary Excellence.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
How often we turn to certain poets for certain healing, to those greater “technicians of the sacred” (to borrow from Jerome Rothenberg): Jane Hirchfield for her gentle Buddhist sensibility, John O’Donohue for his lilting Celtic reflections, W.S. Merwin and his deep ecology. Not the least among the greater technicians is Mary Oliver. Our hunger for spiritual healing is underscored by her popularity. The New York Times declared her the best-selling poet. Poet, activist and critic Alicia Ostriker writes of Oliver that she is as “visionary as Emerson.” Where there is criticism, it tends to be among feminists and others who feel she idealizes the feminine connection with nature.
Mary Oliver’s work is deeply rooted in nature and a sense of place, the Ohio of her childhood and the New England of her adult life. More recently Florida, where she moved to be with friends after her partner of forty years died.
Influenced by Thoreau and Whitman, she’s a keen observer. She has said that she found healing in nature and the greater beauty of the world. Nature was her refuge through a difficult childhood and from an abusive father. She writes about her experience of her father in Rage from Dream Work (the Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989).
You are the dark song
of the morning…
But you were also the red song
in the night..
When the child’s mother smiles
you see on her cheekbones
a truth you will never confess
and you see how the child grows
timidly, crouching in corners…
In your dreams she’s a tree that will never come to leaf..
in your dreams you have sullied and murdered
and dreams do not lie.
However dark Rage might be, Oliver’s poems are more often filled with light and encouragement. Journey is one such:
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.
excerpt from The Journey, in Dream Work
… and Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. […]
The world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
excerpt from Wild Geese in Dream Work
When we want to breathe the clear air of nature and the best of the human spirit, we turn to Mary Oliver and the singular meditative grace of her poetry.
we, the nobodies, the little people
whipped by the whims of the power mongers,
nailing us to a cross of narcissism and greed,
tossing us on the trash heap of history
we, the wounded and noble nameless,
with all our bone, blood, heart and soul
do declare unequivocally— we find no redemption in chaos, no joy in parting seas of blood, no grace in killing one another
we now turn, not our cheeks, but our backs,
leaving the bullies to their naked delusion,
their rudimentary souls; relinquishing
the swords they hand us, we put our muscle
to the plow and reclaim our birthright
to all that is sane and good
Poetry is as necessary to life as water. With it we take our stand, raise the collective conscience, show a proper respect for intuition and instinct. Poetry uncobbles our hopes and dreams and anchors our power.
In the April issue of The Woven Tale PressAssociate Editor and Poet Michael Dickel• offers some background on 100,000 Poets for Change (100TPC) and activist poets and poetry. I have the honor to be among several of those poets featured including: 100TPC co-founder, Michael Rothenberg and St. Louis, Missouri Poet Laureate, Michael Castro. The edition includes not only outstanding poets and writers but some truly stellar artists. The Woven Tale Press is “the eclectic culling of the creative web.” View HERE
Editorial Note: Today The Poet by Day features two stellar poets, Myra Schneider and Dilys Wood. Myra, an award-winning poet, poetry coach and author of eleven collections, reviews Antarctica by distinguished poet, Dilys Wood, author of two collections, founder of Second Light Network of Women Poets, managing editor of ARTEMISpoetry (biannual magazine), and co-editor and publisher of poetry anthologies.
In her collection, Antarctica, Dilys Wood has drawn on her considerable knowledge of this continent in remarkable ways. One of these is to produce a brilliant four page monologue, Apsley Cherry-Garrard addresses the Royal Geographical Society. Cherry-Garrard was a member of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic expedition to the South Pole in 1912 although he was not in the final group which reached the Pole. He was also in the team which found Scott in 1913, blamed himself for Scott’s death and had problems with depression for the rest of his life. The imagined lecture marvellously creates the sense of what it feels like to be in Antarctica:
Darkness at noon. But how also explain
too much light? Trapped inside a diamond,
you haul sledge in some spot rifted with crevasses –
you wrench off goggles to guide the team
and know you’ll not sleep that night, eyes sewn
with the burning wires of snow-blindness!
The speaker emerges as an emotionally charged man who was still bound up with his Polar experiences when the First World War, which he fought in, was over. References to the war heighten the tension in the poem. He also reveals his concern for the planet and anticipates the possibility of climate change:
……Not hard to guess
how steel’s icy sheen might have whirled round,
freezing life across five million square miles!
This ice-age, then, could be reversed? At a stroke!
The short poem Snow is an original way to write about finding the bodies of Scott and his two companions. This is also in Cherry-Garrard’s voice. He begins by comparing the frozen spicules of snow with the very different snowflakes on the nursery window which his father lifted him to look at when he was a child. Then, after one verse about the tent buried in a drift and his distress, he relates an arresting dream he’d had of ‘women called Mary’ searching for Jesus. They become mourners walking behind his father’s coffin.
Nearly three-quarters of the book is occupied by The South Pole Inn, a long and ambitious dramatic narrative. It is set in West Ireland in the 1920s mainly in The South Pole Inn which was bought and given this name by Tom Crean who had taken part in early Antarctic exploration. These expeditions feature in the poem but it is Crean’s wife Nell who is the key character. The story centres on her need for a fuller life and her love affair with Frank Worsley, a friend of Crean’s who was also member of the expeditions. There is an exciting plot about smuggling out of the country money left by Tom’s old aunt so that it’s kept in the family. This has connections with the earlier Irish Troubles. Although the main characters are known people they and the story around them are invented. Fact and fiction are seamlessly woven together and every aspect of the Irish background is totally convincing. Each chapter of the poem is in the voice of one of the main characters. The dialogue is earthy, the action immediate and the characters feel very alive. Here is Nell in the first chapter revealing her frustration:
I said I wouldn’t –
would never, never marry. But Tom Crean
He’d spent those years away, hadn’t he?
Smelled different, so I thought. Oceans, ice.
Not like the spiders who never leave
the stinking cupboard. Forgetting, of course,
He came back! Christ what for? Why crawl back?
Tom, it’s like you’ve gone nowhere, done nothing.
A sliver of ice nailed through my husband’s tongue!
Some of the short poems feature women. These include Love in a Freezing Climate, a sequence of witty and imaginative poems, all of which also focus on the extreme coldness. Here is the first which has a wonderful extravagance:
Her Birthday Present
I dreamt I gave you the White Continent.
I wrapped it in white wedding wrap, embossed
with silver penguins and skies. Your parcel
was tied up with rainbow ribbons – Aurora –
because you said Let’s go and see the Lights.
Out there it’s like bathing in pure colour!
Dreaming, I hold your gift: only then
I ask, What is it? What shall I say it is?
Is it something soft, bright, rich, gorgeous
or ice, more ice and, under ice, bare rock?
Antarctica establishes Dilys Wood as a highly original poet. Her work is complex, probing and her use of language exciting and varied. She is particularly known as organizer of the Second Light Network and as the gifted editor of ARTEMISpoetry, the Network’s comprehensive magazine for women poets which includes articles and book reviews – her own are outstanding. Her achievements as an organizer, editor and critic shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that she is an outstanding poet.
– Myra Schneider
Note: Antarctica can be purchased through Second Light or poetry p f. All proceeds go to the Second Light Network of Women Poets.