Mary Oliver, American Primitive

Sermon given by Cil Dullea, July 14, 2019.

      “Wild Geese" is Mary's assurance that our way home is the path we choose to travel in love.  Don't hide your pain Mary says, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine; Meanwhile, the world goes on,” doesn’t it though?  And so we are invited to tell our tales, admitting that we have indeed been traumatized by life.  

     Despair is an intense word, friends, not for casual use.  It snagged my attention like one of Rev. Frank's well-placed casts, yet Mary seems almost nonchalant dispensing it.  

     Instead, she redirects us to the geese, beautiful, wild creatures soaring freely beyond the constraints of human lives, “harsh and exciting” in their vocalizing; “heading home again”.  Home, likewise a hefty word, perhaps defining living arrangement or place origin, but suggestive of more; family grouping, community; the word that names refuge:  physically and philosophically.  This is intentional - to contrast despair with belonging – the geese her lead players, because they can transport themselves whenever the need arises to go where sanctuary beckons.  Mary's telling us, use your imagination, transcend your pain, listen, the geese are announcing something vital, "you have a place in the family of things."         

     I bought a copy of Mary's poetry, Why I Wake Early, because I do, first reading the poem, "Bone" that describes her discovery on the beach of the small ear bone of a Pilot Whale, prompting her to question whether it could be compared to our soul, "so hard, so necessary, yet almost nothing."  She concludes with a thought which recurs in her work – that "not knowing" isn’t something we should let frighten us.  Isn’t that what Paul Tillich, Christian existential philosopher and Protestant theologian, meant when he said modern man must brave ambiguity?  Mary's poetry has sometimes been criticized as simplistic; I don't agree.  

     I’ve traipsed through woods, marshes, streams, often with just my dog, since resentfully being transplanted from city-living as a preteen, long ago.  I'm primarily a visual learner but notice a similarity between how Oliver crafts poems, composers write concertos, and artists design paintings, conceptualizing ideas that evoke meaning.  The way the words fit together makes a whole tantalizingly more than the sum of its parts, marrying left and right-brains, expanding our sense of connections exponentially. 

     Here's one example, in the poem "Beans" she’s picking in her garden, pondering just what these slender green cylinders embody, unimposing in appearance yet significant to survival.  How can one quantify their worth, guess what their primary attribute could be; offering, at the close, “butwhat about virtue?”  Are you serious, Mary?  She is, playfully nudging us to pay attention to the meaning behind whatever speaks to our consciousness as we walk on. 

        It proves to me why she used for an epigraph to Why I Wake Early, George Herbert’s question, “Lord, who has praise enough?”  Each poem considers the concreteness of something she’s come upon wandering and asks what its spiritual correspondence might be.  For Mary, this synthesis of her spiritual practice, her process, is prayer.   

     In, Why I Wake Early, we find 47 poems with only nine mentions of people; an Indian ghost, “She” mentioned only in a title, an unnamed neighbor who owns the yard a wren flies through, herself - alluded to briefly in the third person twice.  She mentions that the old poets of China were wise to isolate themselves on mountaintops, in another a Sufi whirls, surely, it's Rumi.  She speaks of Blake, assuming I’m also a friend.  Why does she leave personal interactions so completely in the hands of other poets?  'Though I'm as content with her way as black snake swimming across the pond; Mary shares coyly how something in the happiness of swimming causes his smile to widen.  I like snakes, I really do, but if one smiled, I missed it.  

     Quite by accident, I read her work of this century before stumbling on Dream Work, published in 1986, fourteen years back in the last century.  On page 12, the poem "Rage," jumps at the reader.  It reveals what surely was decisive in Mary’s life, difficult to absorb, requiring re-reading to accept, childhood molestation, Mary's own, that legacy of loss-of-innocence, pain, and confusion, some fathers bequeath in betrayal.  I sat in sadness for awhile before the question formed that I find so compelling, "What could possibly account for her recovery?"  Thinking, too, that I may now know why she leaves the analysis of people mostly for other poets to employ for insight.       

     But, many human characters people Dream Work.  Listen as she speaks of them In "Members of the Tribe."  “That time I wanted to die somebody was playing the piano in the room with me.  It was Mozart, It was Beethoven.  It was Bruckner.  In the kitchen a man with one ear was painting a flower.”

     The first year Sandra's college students did their practicum in Early Childhood Education working at her preschool she headed off one May morning laden down with an armload of newly created materials.  "What's all this?"  I wanted to know.  

     “Termination activities,” she answered.  

     “That's heavy stuff for three, four, and five year-olds to handle, isn't it?”  I offered.      

     “Priscilla, all loss is momentous.”  She answered.  “These little ones have loved these teachers all semester and it may be the first time they’ve had to say good-bye to someone.  Don’t make the mistake of minimizing their pain.  If we talk about what they're feeling and grieve together it will help them and give them important emotional tools.”

     The truth of that morning more than forty years ago has resurfaced in my life again and again.  I could have paired it sooner with a lesson from Kalil Gibran, the Lebanese mystic who wrote The Prophet.  When asked to speak of Joy and Sorrow he replied, "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.  Some…say 'Joy is greater than sorrow', and…others say, 'Nay, sorrow is the greater.'  But I say unto you, they are inseparable." 

     It wasn't until I had dealt personally with profound loss that I fully understood how often Mary's poems are snapshots of events in the natural world that inform this lesson.  

In her poem, "Snow Geese", the first stanza begins:

     Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!

        What a task

           to ask 

     of anything, or anyone,

     yet it is ours,

       and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.  

She ends the poem this way:

     The geese

     flew on.

 …What matters

     is that, when I saw them,

     I saw them

     as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.

     I know that Mary was institutionalized for a time and that she speaks gratefully of a Jesuit priest who helped her.  I know she was moved by the pain of a number of artists who died young or took their own lives.  She writes of them, and dedicated, American Primitive, her volume of poetry that won the Pulitzer, to James Wright, whose poetry, though dark, gave her joy and a lifeline in her own dark times. 

     Perhaps Mary's biographer will share more insight as to how Mary's spiritual practice of observing nature's beauty was crafted into poems.  Perhaps Mary has instructed her to leave that process unrevealed.  Mary worked for a considerable time organizing and codifying the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, maybe this functioned somehow as catalyst for her own.  We may never know, but her words speak for themselves.  As the poet Alicia Ostricker said, "She has instinct, faith, and determination".  

     The poem placed next in Dream Works after "Rage" is "Wild Geese."  What a crevasse lies between them, what a pile of considerations shoveled into the void before the expanse repairs a path to wholeness.  What homage to grit.  Other poems in Dream Works give cryptic glimpses of that landscape.  It's astonishing to me that she bridged the terrain - this space between nightmare and salvation.

     My hero would become far more than all right.  Mary had her own champions, buoyed up by music, its beauty imperative to her, understanding the passion of many.  Listen to a quote from her poem for Robert Schumann: Everywhere in this world his music explodes out of itself, as he could not.  And now I understand something so frightening and wonderful…"  

This effort saved her and gave us the gifts of thought that are so agonizingly difficult to come by.  She loved Walt Whitman, who also was not afraid to immerse himself in death and wrote about sitting with soldiers, Union and Confederate, dying from the wounds of hatred and musket balls.                              

     "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being; the more joy you can contain,” And for Mary, discovering that joy came about by walking on through the geography of Provincetown, MA, picking up shells, watching clouds, observing the dance of life and death play out between the denizens of Cape Cod; Great Blue Heron and dazzling silver fish designated lunch, honoring each, balanced between the temporary and eternal, accepting that this is our world, and her place in it. 

     We pay for the glorious gift of life by daring not to turn our heads from the sadness of it.  Some few look closely enough to find equal measure of joy in that woe.  Art is replete with it.  I once looked upon the ancient mask of a seal by some anonymous Inuit, seal their primary source of food.  They must destroy the life behind those soulful eyes to garner sustenance.  It was a mask of love and regret, joy and despair.  We are caught up in this web.  

     Mary Oliver passed through the ashes of despair to sing a hymn to life.  The poems seem simple but Mary did not give her mind away to construct stunningly beautiful imagery.  She was as buffeted by the world as any of us, possibly explaining why she left political commentary to others.  In her volume Red Bird, I guess after a tough news cycle, her analysis was acerbic and eloquent.  On two facing pages she offers these dualistic observations that conclude this remembrance.  First

Of The Empire

“We will be known as a culture that feared death

and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity

for the few and cared little for the penury of the

many.  We will be known as a culture that taught

and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke

little if at all about the quality of life for

people (other people), for dogs, for rivers.  All

the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a

commodity.  And they will say that this structure

was held together politically, which it was, and

they will say also that our politics was no more

than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of

the heart, and that the heart, in those days,

was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

     Her need to have spoken is palpable but, once more, she reminds us on the next page it's our job to trudge through what is incomprehensible to find our own refuge ever grateful for our lives and intentional in that gratitude.

Not This, Not That

Nor anything,

not the eastern wind whose other name

is rain,

nor the burning heats of the dunes

at the crown of summer,

nor the ticks, that new, ferocious populace,

not the President who loves blood,

nor the governmental agencies that love money,

will alter

my love for you, my friends and my beloved,

or for you, oh ghosts of Emerson and Whitman,

or for you, oh blue sky of a summer morning,

that makes me roll in a barrel of gratitude

down hills,

or for you, oldest of friends: hope;

or for you, newest of friends: faith;

or for you, silliest and dearest of surprises, my

own life.

Thank you Mary Oliver.  Blessed be and Amen.