Saturday, December 14, 2013

Poem- Thank You, Mary Oliver

I've been wanting to share a number of "older" poems from the last few years.  This one, in response to the poetry of Mary Oliver, was finished a few months ago, but started in late 2012.

I like Mary Oliver, but I'm not a "fan" or anything.  I've read her work, and own a book.  Her words are worth reading and giving your time to.  But a year or so ago, she spoke in SF at the Arts Center.  They broadcast it on NPR.  I hadn't written much for over a year at the time, and felt very dry creatively.  I was driving home in the dark, I'm not sure why or from where, but you could hear her coming on stage.  Her voice was old but steady.  She read some poems and spoke, and she gave, in speaking, each word the kind of respect that's heartening to hear.  And something sort of woke up in me.  I sat in the driveway in the car,  in the dark, and listened and listened until my throat was full.

Thank you, Mary Oliver

Those words were dead
when I found them in your dark pond.
I listened to you
pull them from the water.  They glistened
like seal skin or trout
in the moonlight, as you lay their bodies
on the sand.

Thank you Mary Oliver.
You did not bow to the twig,
but embraced it.  Americans
don’t like bowing, but are game for a good conversation.
You conversed with the twig
as it hatched the morning
from its calloused spindles.

Mary Oliver, you
had a kind of cadence
I agreed with. 
Where words have hands
and are used for lifting.
You weren’t afraid of silence,
or that the smooth gun metal chain might break.

You laid your hands upon the fish, no fuss,
and words began to slap against the peppered sand.
Eager for the baptism, you barely had to help them
scootch from the shore.  I liked that— no fuss
about the word laid sideways
in the service of life.  So thank you, Mary Oliver,
for the smell of tadpoles and the rippled ink.


1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve,

    I think of your framing words and the poem itself as an "original response" -- the phrase is borrowed from Robert Frost's "The Most of It" ("He would cry out on life, that what it wants / is not its own love back in copy speech, / but counter–love, original response ...") and is meant to suggest, if read positively, the power of voice to echo through poems across time and to awaken in others a call for a genuine exchange, mind to mind ... I have always thought that one answer to the riddle, How does a poetic thought differ from an ordinary thought?, could lie in this idea of original response, that it might be peculiar to poetic thinking and the words that carry it to consciousness ... But more on that in another post ...

    I happen to believe that among all the formal trappings of poetry, "voice" is the least well studied or understood, so I'm all the more attentive when a poem takes "voice" itself as a theme, as this one does ...

    You mention the amount of time that passed between hearing Mary Oliver's voice and completing the poem, or at least bringing it to its current state, and yet the reader feels that none of the raw emotion of the primal moment has been lost, and that actually it has intensified over time, as you have come to recognize your own voice in hers, much in the way we realize on reflection that the human sounds we hear in dreams is our own voice returned to us ...

    Frost had another poet in mind, Wordsworth, who took up the theme of original response in his celebrated "The Boy of Winander," a solitary child wandering the cliffs who "with fingers interwoven, both hands / pressed closely palm to palm, and to his mouth / uplifted, he, as through an instrument,/ blew mimic hootings to the silent owls, / that they might answer him ..." It's easy to see how Frost's poem "echoes" Wordsworth; how this is done and what we should think of it could be the topic of another post ...

    We've talked a little bit elsewhere about the imagery, how your poem ties to the tradition of fishing up something from the depths, and there's much more to say about that too, but for now I'll close with a note of admiration for your sensitivity to the cadences of the poem, its interstices, the pauses or silences that occur as a poetic line is read or voiced ... I find it remarkable that you praise Mary Oliver for hers, it's been said, rightly I think, that understanding slows down thinking, and you have taken the time to grasp the silences ... Aristotle famously related metaphor to speed of thought, but it couldn't have been poetic metaphor he was thinking of, since a poem has body and weight and takes time and reflection to come into being, and emerges only when a thought or image in words settles into a voice that can be heard ...