Category Archives: Poetry

Mary Oliver’s Quiet Revolution

Poetry that brings the outdoors inside

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”- Mary Oliver

Year after year, decade after decade, Mary Oliver has revolved with the seasons. Quietly, she has turned out master poetry that brings us back outside, and back to ourselves.

Mary Oliver published her first book of poetry the year I was born, yet I only became aware of her writing this year. For me, discovering her poetry is like looking up and seeing trees that have silently grown all around me and finally getting to explore their grandeur. It is like falling in love with a song and discovering the artist who wrote it has scores of albums for you to dive into.

Her poetry, is a guide not only into forests, meadows and mountain streams but into the landscape of memory and being. Mary points out things that I most certainly would have missed.

Mary Oliver spent her childhood in seclusion. She talks of “living in a small town surrounded by woods and a winding creek- woods more pastoral than truly wild.” She would build herself little hut houses out of sticks and leaves with open doorways. These were her shelters where she could look out and truly take in the majesty around her. No one ever discovered, or at least disturbed, her houses. When the weather took them down, she recognized it as part of the process and moved on to build new ones. This was not a socialized communal fort building or territorial stake-claiming game. It allowed her to see the world that she was a part of not merely as resources, materials to be exploited or utilized but something wonderful.

“…The world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water…to the young, these materials are still celestial; for every child the garden is re-created.” – Mary Oliver

Her poetry encourages me to cast back to my childhood.  I first remembered making what I used to call my ‘bird house’ by surrounding myself with the bolster pillows from my bed.  I would drape a thinly woven blanket over the top of these pillows so that the light would stream in on me.  This isolation seemed to connect me to the “Green Mansions” I had read about in my dad’s two volume set of The Reader’s Encyclopedia. I felt tranquil and connected.  Without having the slightest understanding of meditation, in retrospect, I was tapping into the innate nature of silence that children find so enticing.

I remembered the tree in our backyard.  It was perfect for climbing.  I used to scale high up in the branches, surrounded by leaves, and look down at the ground. I looked up into the sky, into the hallowed hollowed space the branches made within the crown of the tree. I spent hours there. It became my office, my temple, the best place to think, the best place not to think. It was my perfect place to Be.  As an adult, I rarely allow myself to be. When did I start to take a book with me everywhere I went?  When did I start overfilling my day with the obsession of productivity? How often do I allow myself to just sit on the train and watch the sun spots dance on the river?

Since I discovered Mary Oliver, I spend part of my mornings with her poetry and essays.  She takes me Upstream* where I reconnect to the riches within my backyard and along the roadsides while en route with my wife, Julia, from state to state, gig to gig. Mary reminds me to notice, to look up from my phone.  She offers “the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.” It makes me want to go exploring. It is a point of view that helps me understand and more fully appreciate my friend Greg who moved to New Zealand to go on epic hikes along mountainous terrains for several days at a time. His drive to be there is the connection with the Earth that goes beyond words. Julia naturally shares this drive. She will stop the car to take in what can never be captured by a camera, although our phones are both filled with more pictures of scenery since spring has arrived. Our house is also adorned with special branches, leaves, stones and shells collected from glorious moments of noticing. It’s fair to say that my wife is quite conscious of what Mary so eloquently writes:

“The song you heard singing in the leaf when you were a child is singing still.” – Mary Oliver

Mary’s poetry is not composed of heady, ethereal dense concepts that have to be decoded or navigated with a mental machete.  She reminds me that each morning the dawn not only breaks but is there to break us open if we are awake for it. Even in traffic or on a subway, a portion of each morning’s spectacular unfolding performance can reach us where we are.

One morning in high school, a handful of my friends and I traversed out to the other side of a lake where I lived. We found a log that was long enough to accommodate all of us. We watched the sunrise in silence.  Spontaneously, we all rose to our feet in admiration, giving nature a standing ovation.

Mary Oliver’s writing prompts me to remember that I still have access. I can listen, absorb and be absorbed by nature’s radiance that offers us a temporal eternity.

Mary has not filled the streets with pamphlets and propaganda. No government has been overturned. There has been no violent uprising.
Still, person by person, Mary has brought us upstream poem by poem, where we can rejoice in silence at the turning of the tide.

*- Upstream- Selected Essays Mary Oliver Penguin Press New York 2016

Poetry- Bold and Shivering

“Poets, come out of your closets,

Open your windows, open your doors.

You’ve been holed-up too long

in your closed worlds….”

“Poetry is the ultimate inner refuge.

Poems are lumina, emitting light.”- Lawrence Ferlinghetti

“My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is to not look away.” – Nikky Finney

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Nikky Finney

Nikky Finney’s 2011 National Book Award in Poetry acceptance speech :

https://youtu.be/BFSiKx-hzks (Start at 4:50)

Happy 20th annual national Poetry month!

Watching Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech for winning the National Book Award in Poetry, I am reminded why I feel even the word Poetry deserves to be capitalized when it is delivered to us from the midwives of devotion. I must admit I had never heard of this Kentucky poet before Julia shared an NPR link with me.  So many vital things are like Poetry, tucked away at the back of society’s store.  Ms. Finney starts her speech citing a South Carolina law, which prohibits anyone teaching a slave to read or write.  This cruelty was, “determined to control what can never be controlled: the will of the human heart to speak its own mind*.” With the soft shaking voice of the survivor’s victory, Finney invoked those who suffered indignities and death to be able express themselves. She described them as they moved around the room, sitting now where they liked; in finery, in dignity, bold, and shivering.

Yesterday I was talking to my friend Drake Powe, whose very presence is Poetry. Drake said that he still has to battle innate fears of being attacked. This is someone who is well over six feet tall with an obvious strength within and without; someone who generates a deep-seated and infectious calm. Nikky Finney’s professor told her, “Black people were the only people in the United States ever explicitly forbidden to become literate.”

There is legacy that results from that. We have the most eloquent, well-read, intelligent President in office right now. President Obama has endured with dignity, grace, good will and humor, continuous demeaning slander that has welled up from a fury that the old South Carolina laws have proved to be sand-castles dutifully washed away by the tide.

Here is an excerpt from Drake Powe’s blog:

“No matter where we start, or how difficult the situation, we can achieve a state of rest, of contentment and peace… Once as a child I fell into a swimming pool. I was alone, fully clothed and did not know how to swim. I sank like a rock to the bottom of the pool, and knew that it was not where I wanted to be. I pushed off, and shot right back to the top. …you can get to where you want to be from where you are…Stay positive, be open and love your life, as it is. Love is always the best starting point.”

Drake Powe

May you play in the tide that sweeps the beach clean of your heart’s barriers.

Love you, Ira

PS- Check out my good friend Rick Lupert, a wonderfully funny and poignant Poet!

*- from Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech

Stream of Light 9-23-14 / Sweet Can Productions & The Levins World Folk Ensemble present: My Friend Hafiz

There are moments and days in our lives that we recognize as almost perfect.  Beautiful heavenly days.  While you can not hold onto them, you can draw from them and recall the serenity they provide to bring this moment into sharper focus.  Being grateful and recognizing what is sublime in our lives opens the door to more of the same.  There are always things within us that we can be grateful for.  By being in the state of conscious gratitude, not only do we recognize what is around us but we generate things to be grateful for and illuminate them for those around us.
_______________________________
“In the artistic community, we always talk about the transformative power of theater, music, and art, but I got to witness it first hand on the deepest level this weekend. Last night, a woman rushed down to Kerri Kresinski and me, and said, “That’s it. You did it. I’m going to quit my job. Life is too short to be miserable.” Ira Scott Levin said this show was the most important thing he’d ever done in his life. 
It seems like every show I’m in, becomes a part of the fabric of my being. What a marvelous piece to weave into my soul.” –
Natasha Kaluza
 
We were on the move again yesterday and today I can finally sit and reflect on what occurred this weekend.  We had a full week of rehearsals and only got everyone all in the same room to fully run our production of My Friend Hafiz by Sweet Can Productions with The Levins World Folk Ensemble on Thursday night. On Friday night as we opened, I stood there playing the songs and cried.
Somethings embrace synergy to such a high level that what emerges has always existed and always will.   I talk about time being spherical a lot, but it occurred to me that the reason the songs had come through and that we had recorded the album was for this very performance.  As the weekend progressed, we honed the show and the circle of musicians and the circle of circus performers  overlapped and spiraled up.  The thrust of the standing ovations was not just because the performers were so incredibly talented and that the clowns were so funny and that dances were so perfectly matched to bring the music and poetry forward but I believe the essence of what Hafiz achieved in his being somehow spilled over in a lighthearted pageantry of beauty and “benevolent thought, benevolent sound, benevolent movement around and around!”
Tomorrow is the Jewish New Year -may the circular nature of everything within you and around you be Sweet so that you know you Can shine out in the way you hope to.

 

Bon Apetit Jered Nelson! and “Put down your phone, pick up a poem!”

Last week I wrote about my friend Jered, who is expanding his pottery business and training and hiring local potters.
He didn’t make his kickstarter goal but because he and his family put it out into the universe that they needed a specific amount of money and were open to receiving it, it came through in a different form.  Happily, this week a couple of investors loaned them exactly what they needed and Bon Apetit magazine is going to do something about Jered!
“Funny how that happens,” his wife Sarah Kobrinsky said.
This is an amazing example of how when we come to a place of knowing what we want to manifest and decide it is going to happen and are not shaken by appearances, but remain fully engaged, we can recognize our good when it comes to us and take it up with discernment and gratitude.  Julia often reminds me to ask for the best thing to happen for everyone involved.
Sarah also has a project as the Poet Laureate of Emeryville which is Poems on the Emery Go-Round, (the free shuttle bus service in Emeryville.)  Their tagline is:
“Put down your phone, pick up a poem!”
The city just approved her Call for Submissions and here is the link:

https://poetlaureateofeville.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/call-for-submissions_emery-go-round.pdf

If you are a poet or know a poet in the SF Bay Area, please pass this on!