Woke up this morning to a dusting of snow on the deck. It melted in a few hours. Worked on Mary Oliver in the morning, then ran in the early afternoon. Started in the neighborhood then decided to keep going north on the trail all the way to the trestle. Hooray! Ran right above the river and the rowing club. What a view! No snow, hardly any other people, only a little wind. Lots of drumming woodpeckers and cardinals and a few black-capped chickadees. This spring, I need to add another bird sound to my collection. Felt relaxed and strong until the last mile when I still felt strong but also sore in my back and heavy in my legs. Can’t remember what I was thinking about. All thoughts gone, soundless words scattered over the tops of the trees. Scheduled second pfizer shot for April 30th. Almost there! Later today, I’ll sign up for open swim. This year, you can swim at Nokomis and Cedar. Awesome.
My Morning’s Work
Started by reading Dreamwork which is one of MO’s more painful (and personal?) books in which she addresses her childhood with an abusive father. The first poem is “Dogfish.” Intense. When I looked for it online, one of the first results that came up was Mary Oliver reading for a celebration of Emily Dickinson posted on the Dickinson Electronic Archive. Here’s the description of the event:
A marvelous centennial tribute in South Orange, New Jersey thate featured contemporary women poets reading hour after hour, from morning until night “to commemorate the centenary of the death of Emily Dickinson,” which occurred on May 15, 1886. Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, Amy Clampitt, Katha Pollitt, Sharon Olds, Marilyn Hacker, Carolyn Kizer, Toi Derricotte, Maxine Kumin, Mary Oliver, Joyce Carol Oates, Sandra Gilbert, Alicia Ostriker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov were all there– “Poetry-in-the-Round” it was called, an apt descriptor not only because of the shape of the theater in which the readings took place, but because of the taking turns, the offerings making their way around a range of our contemporary poets who have at least two things in common with Emily Dickinson–they are each and all women, and poets. Dickinson Electronic Archives
For her part, MO read several of ED’s poems, then several of her own. The site has a transcript and a recording, with music strangely playing in the background?
ED poems read by MO:
- What is Paradise
- There came a mind like a Bugle
- Under the light, yet under
- Because I could not stop for Death
MO poems read by MO:
- Morning Poem
- Stanley Kunitz
- Blackwater Words
Very cool to have found this, partly for the MO and ED connection, but also for the other poets. I might want to read Maxine Kumin in May or June–I love her swimming poems. Anyway, back to Dogfish. I’ve never heard of dogfish, so I looked them up. They’re little sharks that don’t eat humans but travel in big packs and are aggressive and relentless in hunting their prey–squid, herring, sea cucumber, shrimp, jellyfish. They are also known as spiny dogfish because they have a sharp spine: “Using sharp, venomous spines in the front of each dorsal fin, the spiny dogfish is a small but mighty predator that isn’t afraid to take a jab at passing fish.”
Dogfish/ Mary Oliver (from Dreams)
Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing
kept flickering in with the tide
and looking around.
Black as a fisherman’s boot,
with a white belly.
If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile
under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough
as a thousand sharpened nails.
And you know
what a smile means,
the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of a song where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery; I wanted
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,
whoever I was, I was
for a little while.
It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don’t know what they were
huddled in the highest ripples
as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body
one gesture, one black sleeve
that could fit easily around
the bodies of three small fish.
Also I wanted
to be able to love. And we all know
how that one goes,
the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.
You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen
to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.
And anyway it’s the same old story-
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
for a simple reason.
And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is bulging toward them
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,
they can do it.
Wow. Favorite bit of this poem for today:
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery
I’m thinking of door hinges and poems as opening a thousand doors and the wings of the seven white butterflies and “how they bang the pages/or their wings as they fly/to the fields of mustard and yellow/and orange and plain/gold all eternity” (Seven White Butterflies/ from West Wind). And I’m thinking of the explosion, the discovery, as a flare, a burst of light, of intense emotion, which is the name of the first section of MO’s book-length poem, The Leaf and the Cloud. Last week, I decided that doing a close, sustained reading of this book would be part of my April with Mary (Oliver) exercise. But, before getting to that, here’s how my thoughts about Mary progressed as I read through “Dogfish” and then some of the other poems in Dreamwork:
A few poems later is Trilliums. I think it’s interesting to put these together, connecting them through the idea of an easy life, which is referenced and rejected in both poems–actually in Dogfish, Trilliums, and the one I just mentioned, Seven White Butterflies, which ends with the question: “who/would have thought it could be so easy?”
the hillsides grew white
with the wild trilliums.
I believed in the world,
Oh, I wanted
to be easy
in the peopled kingdoms,
to take my place there,
but there was none
that I could find
shaped like me.
So I entered
through the tender buds,
I crossed the cold creek,
and my thin white shoulders
unfolding and stretching.
From the time of snow-melt,
when the creek roared
and the mud slid
and the seeds cracked,
I listened to the earth-talk,
the arguments of energy,
the dreams lying
just under the surface,
at the last moment
flaring and luminous —
the patient parable
of every spring and hillside
year after difficult year.
Trilliums, along with Dogfish, really got me thinking about “Flare” in The Leaf and the Cloud, which I had already read through at least twice, and then I felt a bit overwhelmed, then stuck, about what to post (or what not to post because I wanted to add more and more of MO’s lines) for this entry. Having listened to an On Being Podcast with Mary Oliver and read Upstream, I knew about MO’s hard childhood. I wondered how much of this dogfish was her dad, and did she imagine herself as one of the three unnamed fish? So I read through “Flare” again and was blown away, both by how she writes about her parents, and by how it connects so much with “Dogfish” and “Trilliums.” So I decided to stop trying to add it all into this entry and to make notes in the margins of the book and to not worry about saying smart, complete things in this post. So, I did. And, I enjoyed writing in the margins of my book, something I did a lot of in grad school. And, I had lots of thoughts about lightness and darkness and flares and fathers and the color green and hinges as not just connected to doors but to edges and seams. And, I could keep writing about this for a long time, but I’ll conclude this post with 2 thoughts.
thought one: the real work is saving ourselves
Mary Oliver writes a lot, in her essays and poems, about the work she is meant to do, or that she wants to do. She often describes this work as the work of noticing. Could this work also be the work of saving the I in the poem–which she often identifies as herself but also suggests that it could be any readers who recognizes themselves in the poem? In her interview with Krista Tippet, MO says:
Many of the poems are “I did this. I did this. I saw this.” I wanted the “I” to be the possible reader, rather than about myself. It was about an experience that happened to be mine but could well have been anybody else’s. That was my feeling about the “I.”
And in one of her poems that I posted a few days ago, I Want to Write Something So Simple, she writes:
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart
had been saying.
In discussing her own work as a poet, Ada Limón says that she writes her poems to save herself.
I believe that poetry can heal us and help us. But, I mean, if I’m very honest, I think they can only do that for the poet. (LAUGHS) And then they may, if we’re lucky, help someone else or move someone else or inspire someone else or get them out of a rut. But I think it begins with like, I write my own poems to save myself. You know, then if, in, you know, some series, lucky series of events, a poem becomes larger than me and reaches someone else, that’s, that’s beautiful. But I don’t always know that that’s gonna happen, right? I have to start by how is this poem recommitting me to the world?Ada Limón VS. Epiphany
In the Krista Tippet interview, Mary Oliver says about leaving her childhood home, “I saved my own life by finding a place that was not in that house.” So, could the work of writing, of creating worlds through words, be how she does it? What if that, and not the act of noticing for noticing’s sake, is the primary work? Or, maybe the work is both.
thought two: the nourishing dark
The final 2 lines of “Flare” are:
This is the dark bread of the poem.
This is the dark and nourishing bread of the poem.
Thinking about the dark as nourishing, I’m reminded of ED and the value of the Dark in, “We grow accustomed to the Dark”:
That unknown mental and spiritual domain is a “larger – Darkness.” That is where our great poets and philosophical explorers venture while the rest of us pursue our hobbies or just relax. Dickinson spends time in this darkness and most of her most evocative, ambiguous, and challenging poetry comes from there.the Prowling Bee
And then, MO’s discussion of the edge in Upstream:
No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind, It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts. or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.Upstream/ Mary Oliver
Whew! That was a lot of thinking today. Time to stop.