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