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#1757 - Sunday, April 4, 2004 - Editor: Gloria  

April is National Poetry Month. This issue features an interview of Mary Oliver and some of her poems.  



"To penetrate into the essence of all being and significance
and to release the fragrance of that inner attainment for the
guidance and benefit of others--by expressing, in the world
of forms, truth, love, purity, and beauty--this is the sole game
which has intrinsic and absolute worth. All other happenings,
incidents, and attainments in themselves can have no lasting
importance."

~Meher Baba
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Posted by Gill Eardley on Allspirit Inspiration
 


  Those who hear this truth even once and listen with a grateful heart, treasuring it, revering it, gain blessings without end.

-Hakuin Zenji, "Song of Zazen"

From "Teachings of the Buddha," edited by Jack Kornfield, 1993. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Boston, www.shambhala.com.

 


   

But perhaps God needs the longing, wherever else shall it dwell,
Which with kisses and tears and sighs fills mysterious spaces of air -
And perhaps is invisible soil from which roots of stars grow and swell -
And the radiant voice across fields of parting which calls to reunion there?
O my beloved, perhaps in the sky of longing worlds have been born of our love -
Just as our breathing, in and out, builds a cradle for life and death?
We are grains of sand, dark with farewell, lost in births' secret treasure trove,
Around us already perhaps future moons, suns, and stars blaze in a fiery wreath.
 

~ Nelly Sachs ~  

(Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead)    

Web archive of Panhala postings: www.panhala.net/Archive/Index.html  


 

Tonight (April 5) marks the start of Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrating the Israelites' exodus from Egypt as recorded in the Bible. Below is a poem about Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who led the Israelite women in song and dance after they crossed the Sea of Reeds, and then, much later, died of leprosy in the desert. This poem appears in Anthony Hecht's COLLECTED LATER POEMS.

***************************************

Miriam


I had a nice voice once, and a large following.
I was, you might say, a star.
Of course, today, no one would ever know it.
My brothers have managed to corner all the attention
In spite of some rather dubious behavior.
O I could sing and dance with the best of them,
Pattern my feet to the jubilant hosannas.
But now I am always silent, always veiled,
Not only in public but in my private chambers
Where there are no mirrors or polished surfaces
In which my white affliction could be reflected.
I've even given up going through my scrapbooks;
The past is past; it's no good to anyone.
Many were lovely once, at least as children.


From COLLECTED LATER POEMS 2004 by Anthony Hecht.
 

MARY OLIVER


Click to enlarge

photo: http://cgee.hamline.edu/see/oliver/oliv_full.jpg

  At Blackwater Pond  

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled 
after a night of rain. 
I dip my cupped hands. I drink 
a long time. It tastes 
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold 
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them 
deep inside me, whispering 
oh what is that beautiful thing 
that just happened?
 
photo: http://www.udel.edu/fllt/staff/stabosz/forest.jpg  

Sleeping in the Forest   

I thought the earth remembered me, she 
took me back so tenderly, arranging 
her dark skirts, her pockets 
full of lichens and seeds. I slept 
as never before, a stone 
on the riverbed, nothing 
between me and the white fire of the stars 
but my thoughts, and they floated 
light as moths among the branches 
of the perfect trees. All night 
I heard the small kingdoms breathing 
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night 
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling 
with a luminous doom. By morning 
I had vanished at least a dozen times 
into something better. 

      When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

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.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems

 

Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith

Every summer
I listen and look
under the sun's brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can't hear

anything, I can't see anything --
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
And still,
every day,

the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker --
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.

And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing --
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet --
all of it
happening
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt

swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?

One morning
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn's beautiful body
is sure to be there.

From West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, by Mary Oliver.


Mary Oliver: A Solitary Walk

Steven Ratiner

When Mary Oliver talks about her work — something she is quite reluctant to do, fending off interviews and media proposals — there is an austerity, a quiet determination to her thought that brings to mind an earlier century. The discipline of her writing life might seem more natural in a time before every living room was plugged into the perpetual tide of images and ideas, when an individual cultivated the solitude and curiosity of the inner life.

This is not to say Ms. Oliver's poems aren't thoroughly contemporary in style, voice, and motive. It's just that, during our conversation, I kept getting the idea that Emily Dickinson would have found her a most agreeable next-door neighbor.

As a young writer, Ms. Oliver was not crushed by the intense isolation and general lack of support peculiar to the poet's vocation. Nor was her equanimity dramatically altered when her book "American Primitive" burst on the national scene, winning the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. In November (1992), her "New and Selected Poems" was honored with the National Book Award as well.

She continues to thrive on the simple necessities of her daily routine: time to be alone, a place to walk and observe, and the opportunity to carry the world back to the page. Like Emily before her, Mary Oliver focuses on the luminous particularities of experience, savoring the simple and the astonishing occurrences of the natural world for the wisdom embedded in beauty and for the mysteries hovering just beneath the glittering surfaces.

Her poetry is also an extended investigation into the nature of the self. But in her vision, the self is a much more open and encompassing concept than the succinct identities to which we affix our names. The "Mary Oliver" of these poems has rain passing through her, contains swans and gannets, pine groves and waterfalls, and the uncanny sense that, at any moment, the world is poised on the verge of speech.

~ ~ ~

Selections from interview

Steven: But the solitariness that was at the heart of your discovery of poetry is largely ruled out by the university workshop model. Are younger writers missing this essential experience?

Mary: It was central for me — I don't know if it was essential, really. It's the way I happened to do it. Also, I take walks. Walks work for me. I enter some arena that is neither conscious or unconscious. It's a joke here in town: I take a walk and I'm found standing still somewhere. This is not a walk to arrive; this is a walk that's part of a process. [Poet] Donald Hall takes short naps. Naps work for him, open the door to the "vatic" voice, as he calls it. Something else will work for somebody else, perhaps. It's a matter of trying everything you can try, just to see what will work for you.

And if we found you, standing transfixed, would that be the beginning of the poem? Would you begin to write right then?

Well, sometimes. I keep a notebook with me all the time - and I scribble.... You begin to get your felt reaction in a phrase, perhaps. But, you know, I've said before that the angel doesn't sit on your shoulder unless the pencil's in your hand. ... And in truth that [is only] given after years of desiring it, being open to it, and walking toward it.Yet you approach the task with a sense of great responsibility.

Oh, yes. It's my responsibility if I choose to do it, to write as well as I possibly can. I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us. We don't have to rely totally on experience if we can do things in our imagination. ... It's the only way in which you can live more lives than your own. You can escape your own time, your own sensibility, your own narrowness of vision.

In most of the poems, there seems to be a natural three-stage process in the experience. The first involves seeing, a careful scrutiny of the subject. But that seeing evolves into a deeper focus, a heightened awareness. Suddenly we become present to the moment. What is that seeing beyond seeing?

It's like an epiphany; I see something and look at it and look at it. I see myself going closer and closer just to see it better, as though to see its meaning out of its physical form. And then, I take something emblematic from it and then it transcends the actual. [...]

I'd like to ask you about the choices, the large and small sacrifices you've made in order to have this work become a center in your life.

It was not a choice of writing or not writing. It was a choice of loving my life or not loving my life. To keep writing was always a first priority.... I worked probably 25 years by myself.... Just writing and working, not trying to publish much. Not giving readings. A longer time than people really are willing to commit before they ... want to go public or be published. Also I was very careful never to take an interesting job.

Really? Never?

Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. .... I usually get up at 5. Believe me, if anybody has a job and starts at 9, there's no reason why they can't get up at 4:30 or 5 and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day - which is what I did. ... I don't know how to measure the life I lived during those years. I was certainly never in want, and I was never wealthy. I have a notion that if you are going to be spiritually curious, you better not get cluttered up with too many material things. ... It's a commitment, but it's also an unstoppable urge toward that life of the imagination. I don't think I have been bored one day in my life, you know, or an hour.

What led you to your bond with the natural world? I'm assuming it began when you were very young.

Well, yes, I think it does or does not happen when one is young.... I grew up in a small town in Ohio.... It was pastoral, it was nice, it was an extended family. I don't know why I felt such affinity with the natural world except that it was available to me, that's the first thing. It was right there. And for whatever reasons, I felt those first important connections, those first experiences being made with the natural world rather than with the social world. I think the first way you do it, the first way you take meaning from the physicality of the world, from your environment, probably never leaves you. I think it sets a pattern, in a way.[...]

Your nature poetry somehow takes in the whole matter of our living and our dying. In the poem "Poppies," you say simply, "of course/ loss is the great lesson." It ends with the lines: "But also I say this: that light/ is an invitation/ to happiness,/ and that happiness,/ when it's done right,/ is a kind of holiness,/ palpable and redemptive." Is that the motive behind your forays into the woods and onto the page?

Absolutely! Bull's-eye, to point to those lines! I think that appreciation is a very valuable thing to give to the world. And that's the kind of happiness I mean. And I can't go on with that because there's no language to talk about it. But that's probably very close to the center of whatever I feel spiritually.

"The Swan" takes on this idea directly as well when it says: "Of course! the path to heaven/ doesn't lie down in flat miles./ It's in the imagination/ with which you perceive/ this world,/ and the gestures/ with which you honor it./ Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those/ white wings/ touch the shore?" Do you think in some sense that becomes the measure of our lives, how we do honor to what we discover in this world?

Absolutely and totally. I do believe it. That's a poem in which every person, every reader can take his own measure and decide his response.

 more: http://www.csmonitor.com:/atcsmonitor/specials/poetry/p-oliver.html


This is a brief excerpt from Steven Ratiner's complete interview which will appear in his collection: GIVING THEIR WORD -- Conversations with Contemporary Poets, coming from UMASS Press in 2002. The press can be reached at: http://www.umass.edu/umpress.

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