November 25, 2015
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Mary Oliver is a poet who often writes of attention to the natural world. Through a keen sense of awareness, one is better able to understand both themselves and the larger world. Oliver offers scenes from the natural world as a path towards our own internal growth. Oliver captures the essence of a moment with expressive, careful clarity. Nature is most often her subject and she beckons to the reader’s emotions which rise and fall with the action on the page. Through Oliver’s words, the reader also witnesses. According to Oliver, witness is the first step toward gratitude. In her prose-poem “Upstream” Mary Oliver writes, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Of course, this is true of all things – ourselves included.
Mary Oliver talks of beginning at the beginning. For example, she started to learn about nature simply by camping, by walking out among the trees. This turned into an observation of yet-unnamed entities. From there, she learned to identify and name the plants and animals that surrounded her. Careful observation of the smallest details offered greater proof of the intricately woven world. This action turned to adoration. She took comfort in the regularity of natural lives, in the blossoms of spring and summer, and yet also in the frost and bitter cold. Nature’s ability to shine despite all external odds comforted Oliver. So, she began to write poems as a form of devotion.
Ironically, through paying attention, Oliver also discovered the impossibility of fully knowing anything. Instead, she increasingly became grateful for the opportunity to observe, interact and exist. At the end of her essay “A Blessing” she writes about summer days spent camping. She says,
“What we saw filled our minds. What we saw made us love and want to honor the world. And dear readers, if anyone thinks children in these difficult times do not need such peaceful intervals, then hang up the phone, we are not having a conversation. Without doubt those summers changed my life and my friend’s. Whoever I am, and whoever my friend is now, fifty years later, we are both still part of this feast of the past. Happiness and leaves – they went together. The tender dripping of water on the tent roof, from the maples or, once, the realization that a baby skunk had taken to one of the cots we slept on and was, on a rainy morning, in a sound sleep. What could we do? Think of us – or think of your own children – in a tent that leaked only a little, and then from the beautiful rain and the elegant maples – think of us watching that very little skunk curled in the best blanket, opening its eyes sleepily and then closing them again; think of our silent and entirely happy laughter as we too went back to sleep.”
Oliver’s personal connection with nature is clear. More than simply asking the reader to understand nature, however, she begs that we participate, if only by observation. It is necessary for all of us to witness. From there, she comes full circle to understanding the self, human interaction and connection. In the poem “The Whistler”, Oliver writes about the love of her life. She says,
“I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-/ kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too./ And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin/ to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with/ for thirty years?”
Reading Mary Oliver’s work always instills gratitude in me, as if a vital spirit has lifted me. I feel blessed to think that I am able to participate in deep conversation. And, as always, I am the better for it. Today, I am grateful for Oliver’s words, just as I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss them. As we approach holidays and times of stress, I intend to sneak back into nature, to steal a peek at some scene that refreshes, emboldens, embellishes and enlivens the world I live in. I hope you are able to do the same and I wonder whether or not your tent leaks a little too?
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