We need Mary Oliver more than ever

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Mary Oliver left her body this past week, on January 17, 2019. The poet who spent a good deal of her life musing about death has finally experienced it firsthand. I believe she was ready to go and find out what’s on the other side of the veil.

Some have written of her work in less than kind terms, as is always the case when a creative person becomes famous. But for the many fans of her poetry across the world, Mary Oliver remains a beloved commentator of the human heart, keen observer of the natural world, and philosopher of life on planet Earth.

I first became acquainted with Mary Oliver’s poetry when I was in my early thirties. I purchased her book New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, Boston), at a poignant moment in my life when her words resonated deeply in my soul. That was over twenty years ago.  Since then, I’ve had certain periods when poetry took a prominent seat in my everyday and I’d pull out her volume anew. Her poems never failed to inspire and affirm my experience, as old and beloved friends usually do.

In this week’s New York Times articles about her death, journalists compared her style of nature poetry to Walt Whitman and even Thoreau and Emily Dickinson—she kept good company. But Oliver was fully present in our time, having lived through the majority of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. Yes, her overarching themes were about the dynamic relationship between nature and human beings, and she mostly used first person point of view.  In the poetic tradition, the personal I is the most effective way to carry meaning to the reader. In a world full of artifice, egoism, arrogance and materialism, Oliver was a voice of sanity, reason and heart. Her keen observations were unflinching as she deftly described and questioned our human experience in the face of vast and unexplainable forces. Her voice was at once tender and unsentimental, reminding us of the importance of nature within our human experience.

In these days of ever increasing technology, artificial intelligence, and furiously increasing capitalism which by now is threatening the very existence of life on Earth, Mary Oliver’s deceptively simple, clear-eyed verse is more needed than ever. In her poem The Sun (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she asks,

have you ever felt for anything
such wild love—
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed—
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

In her poem The Ponds (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she marvels at the perfection of the wild lilies growing at the edges of the ponds near her home. She writes

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided—
and that one wears an orange blight—
and this one is a glossy cheek

half-nibbled away—
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Oliver remains a master of metaphorical poetry. A familiar pattern in her work is to first give the reader gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, and then deftly weave them within the framework of the human experience. I know of no other poet who uses this technique so seamlessly and succinctly. She simultaneously marvels at nature, wonders about the divinity who created it all, and asks us how to reckon with the unfathomable mystery that is our life, our planet, our home. Here is one of my favorite poems,
The Summer Day (House of Light, 1990).

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

In our present, highly chaotic and anxious times, reading Oliver’s calm, forthright and clear-eyed poems brings a sense of grounding, peace and sanity to our souls. Much like meditation and walks in the woods (for those fortunate enough to have woods nearby in which to walk), her poems remind us to be present, to breathe deep, and to be awake to the wonder of life inherent here on our beloved Earth. It is more challenging than ever to maintain sanity in such a world, but Oliver reminds us, through unerringly clear vision, of why we must do so. In her famous poem In Blackwater Woods (American Primitive, 1983) she writes,

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
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.

On an ordinary Thursday in January, 2019, Mary Oliver let it go. She let go of the world after holding it against her bones, caressing it ever so lovingly, so tenderly.  I am sure I speak for many others when I say how very grateful I am to her for holding up such a compassionate and clear mirror so we all may see ourselves and our planet reflected within it.

 

On Fucking as a Phenomenon

It’s the end of 2018. Besides an overabundance of absurd political drama, lots of people in our society (that would be America, or Los Estados Unidos) are as concerned with fucking as ever. Possibly more.

Back in the day…when I was a young woman, the word “fuck” was a curse word reserved for times you were really, really upset, or else kids would insert it into their vernacular to try to be cool. “yeah, fucking COOL, man” was a highly popular slang term at the time. But by now, the word “fuck” has been co-opted by, well, nearly everyone under fifty in this society. From little kids who have no clue what the word actually means, to Millennials on the bus, and pretty near everyone in-between.

Others talk about fucking as an activity, sort of like a sport that some follow. “Oh, he was fucking her, but then she let him know she wasn’t into him anymore, so now she’s fucking his roommate.”  The word is regularly used as an modifier: “fucking RIGHT.” Or, the ever ubiquitous “What the FUCK??!!”  Now, please don’t get the idea that I’m a prude or anything. I have personally used or done all that I’ve described above. The issue is that the term is just, mmm, slightly overused by now, wouldn’t you agree?

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image via https://jezebel.com/in-defense-of-the-word-fuck-1555610538

The word itself has interesting roots. According to Etymonline[1], until recently it was

“a difficult word to trace in usage, in part because it was omitted as taboo by the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary when the “F” entries were compiled (1893-97). Fuck wasn’t in a single English language dictionary from 1795 to 1965. “The Penguin Dictionary” broke the taboo in the latter year. Houghton Mifflin followed, in 1969, with “The American Heritage Dictionary,” but it also published a “Clean Green” edition without the word, to assure itself access to the public high school market.”

There are different theories as to its actual origins, but some good linguistic guesses place it as coming from Germanic and/or Scandinavian words like “ficken. They often have additional senses, especially ‘cheat,’ but their basic meaning is ‘move back and forth.’ … Most probably, fuck is a borrowing from Low German and has no cognates outside Germanic.”[2]

My, we’ve come a long way from the late 19th century, haven’t we! Especially because the word has such popular derivatives, such as fucked, fuck it, fuck off, fucked up, fuck you, motherfucker, cluster fuck, and my favorite (that I just learned from Etymonline), fuckwit. During the 16th century (and probably earlier), the word fuck was considered vulgar English, meaning common, ordinary or of the herd. In 2018, though it’s still vulgar (probably more so than ever), it’s no longer forbidden from either dictionaries or everyday English usage.

Aside from its popularity as an adverb, the stubborn truth is that people in the United States (and plenty of other lands) are absolutely obsessed with copulation. There are probably upwards of about ten million things that humans could concern themselves with, throughout the course of any day. And, clearly some are thinking about some of those ten million things. But. Fucking, the thought of fucking, who is fucking who (or who ISN’T fucking who any longer), and an endless list of the nuances around these base thoughts seem to take up the majority of people’s grey matter.

Is it because humans cannot get a grip on their hormone levels? Doesn’t that start to regulate after about age 25? Or maybe it’s because climate change is hovering over humanity like some stupendous alien invasion, ready to destroy all life upon Earth AT ANY MOMENT, FOREVER? Or, is it possibly because people are really just extraordinarily bored, and obsessing about sex, bodily parts and all things related is a pleasant, harmless diversion?

What if we, as a species, were suddenly able to telepathically read each other’s thoughts whether we wanted to or not? A genuinely frightening notion this is, with vast implications.  I have to wonder if this were possible, would we quickly tire of thinking so very much about sex and fucking—wouldn’t it become passé once it was no longer a game created for our own amusement and titillation, and hyped to the nines by pop culture for profit margins?

Here’s a short anecdote to ponder:  Once, years ago, I met a guy I had gone to high school with. We’d been friends within a common friend group, and I’d always liked him a lot. He seemed like a thinking person to me at the time, and mused on about quantum physics and various other interesting topics that I knew nothing about. We’d been out of contact for many years. Then, in my mid-thirties, we suddenly connected through a mutual old friend. We decided to have dinner and catch up. After a couple of hours of talking and trading life stories over the last fifteen years, out of nowhere, he said aloud, “I wonder what you look like naked.” I laughed uncomfortably, and quickly changed the subject. Eventually, the evening ended and we said goodnight. Needless to say, I never saw him again. That one ill-placed remark completely ruined the evening, and my former fond memories of him forever.

There is a kind of grace to subtlety. Words well-placed, in the perfect moment, have impact. The word fuck used to have a certain power. But now? It’s lost all its former shock. Like so many other overused words, it has no more oomph, danger, or razzamatazz. Same with the continual conversation about the act of fucking. I suggest we start a revolution of thought, leading to a revolution of action. The new revolution will not be based around copulation, the most mundane act in all of nature. Instead, humans might take up thoughts like how to create a world without war, violence, or extreme inequality to while away the hours. Imagine if even a small percentage of people would shift their thinking from fucking to problem-solving, how the world might change. Overnight.

[1] https://www.etymonline.com/word/fuck#etymonline_v_14228
[2] Ibid.