Monday, January 21, 2019

Mary Oliver*

Mary Oliver (1935—2019) is one of the best-selling contemporary poets in the United States. Her poems are far more often about the natural world — about birds and trees and marshes — than about people; even so she has written many poems about Jesus, and about Christian faith. Her style is accessible, and earnest. She once said in an interview, "One thing I do know is that poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn't be fancy." She died of lymphoma on Thursday (January 17th).

Jewish Rabbi Jeffery Salkin wrote on the day of her passing, “Mary Oliver rejects logical explanation. She leaves room for uncertainty; in fact, she embraces it.” He quotes from one of her recent poems:
-----“I have refused to live
-----locked in the orderly house of
-----reasons and proofs.
-----The world I live in and believe in
-----is wider than that. And anyway,
-----what’s wrong with Maybe? ...”

The following poem was written much earlier.


Sweet Jesus, talking
-----his melancholy madness,
----------stood up in the boat
---------------and the sea lay down,
silky and sorry.
-----So everybody was saved
----------that night.
---------------But you know how it is
when something
-----different crosses
----------the threshold — the uncles
---------------mutter together,
the women walk away,
-----the young brother begins
----------to sharpen his knife.
---------------Nobody knows what the soul is.
It comes and goes
-----like the wind over the water —
----------sometimes, for days,
---------------you don't think of it.
Maybe, after the sermon,
-----after the multitude was fed,
----------one or two of them felt
---------------the soul slip forth
like a tremor of pure sunlight
-----before exhaustion,
----------that wants to swallow everything,
---------------gripped their bones and left them
miserable and sleepy,
-----as they are now, forgetting
----------how the wind tore at the sails
---------------before he rose and talked to it —
tender and luminous and demanding
-----as he always was —
----------a thousand times more frightening
---------------than the killer storm.

*This is the third Kingdom Poets post about Mary Oliver: first post, second post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection is Ampersand (2018, Cascade). His books are available through Amazon, and Wipf & Stock, including the anthologies The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse.