Mary Oliver

It was Mary Oliver’s fourth anniversary a few days ago (17th January). I decided to mark the day by following her own perennial example. I rose early and went for a walk.

I’m within a short walk of the Lagan towpath. On my way there, along this stretch …

… I saw a cormorant flying downriver, head straining back towards the sea. Despite the frequency with which I spot them around these parts, and the knowledge that they often fly inland, I often feel ambushed by their presence. The slightly ghoulish body, the pterodactylian head, their air of the primitive. At the other side of the bridge, the dredger followed the cormorant’s flypast …

… and the underpass was (mostly) flood-free. I often worry about the height of the river. It was very disconcerting when flood defences were completed recently close to nearby apartments (causing the destruction of many mature trees), that the river-adjacent wall of the underpass barely lipped above the river, and the footway was impassable. On Tuesday morning, I hoofed it comfortably …

There was a heavy frost. I was relieved. Climate change is such an oppression on the mind, that sometimes I find myself dreading that I’ll never see frost or snow again. The early part of week just past was freezing and during my walk I was glad of it. I thought of all the years I lived near Learmount Forest in County Derry, how many times I tramped those woods with lines of Mary Oliver whispering in my head. Because the nineties and early noughties were my Oliver years. In my pre-internet life, and to my embarrassment now, I hadn’t a clue about Provincetown. I thought, like me, Oliver lived in the middle of nowhere. Because there’s hardly a mention of the town in the poetry, and certainly no hint of its artistic and alternative heart. There’s just the woods. The beach. The ponds. The sea.

I no longer have the Sperrins on my doorstep, with River Faughan just an amble away. Now I have this intersecting canal-river.

I’ve traded dippers for moorhens. And the odd kingfisher (unfortunately absent from this photo).

There are swans. This one’s white wings almost touched the shore …

I was introduced to Mary Oliver in the early 1990s, when somebody close to me lent me a David Whyte tape. Thus I heard Wild Geese and The Journey recited hypnotically before I ever read them. The first poem of Oliver’s that I remember actually reading was Some Questions You Might Ask, which opens her 1990 collection, House of Light. I looked up from that poem, and I know the astonishment must have shown on my face. Its delicacy and depth. The way it arranges its litany of questions to subtly excavate all the big ones. You could read that poem, and wonder as I did, what has just happened? How did she get that stuff in there? While appearing to write almost nothing at all.

That collection, with Dream Work (1986) and American Primitive (1983), were hugged to my heart for many a long year. And for many years, it seemed as if nobody else had heard of Mary Oliver. Not this side of the Atlantic, anyway. I got hold of her through the long-gone, and and sadly missed, Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London. Later, the now also defunct University Bookshop in Belfast tracked her down by special order. Eventually, Amazon came along. And sometime after that, Bloodaxe published a selection. I don’t remember what it was, I probably have it somewhere. And then, suddenly, Mary Oliver was everywhere.

And then, as my own poetry led me slowly into conversation with others, I became aware that not everyone got Oliver. The Journey and Wild Geese had become so ubiquitously quoted that they were regarded as clichés. Some other poets queried my loyalty to her. She was sentimental apparently – this about the woman who wrote, among many others: Lonely White Fields; Finches; The Osprey; Foxes in Winter. My only possible response to such remarks was, have you actually read her?

She was a poet who never shied away from death and hardship. Who stared the brutality of predation and the sublimation of decay in poem after poem. And yet quietly, determinedly and persistently celebrated the joy of being embodied and breathing and moving. And seeing and tasting and touching. And of listening. And singing.

Maybe it was her privacy that annoyed some people. Maybe it was her spirituality. Certainly her accessibility, and ultimately her popularity. Popularity seems to be fatal to being taken seriously. Perhaps she should have avoided abstract terms like ‘love’ for the imperative driving a black bear (Spring), and referred some kind of Skinnerian impulse instead. But she was ecological in the broadest sense. And Darwinian. And Buddhist. And Christian. There was no separation for her. But she also insisted on the singularity of the individual life, of whatever species (‘…what I loved, I mean, was that tree – / tree of the moment – tree of my own sad, mortal heart –’ [The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond]). She was also disinterested in her own reputation. She guarded her time and her writing. Her voice seemed to come out of an alternative world. She too was fired by her own singularity – and her sense of connection to the natural world that she knew herself to be intrinsically part of.

I met her once, in July 2005. We went to Wellfleet to hear her read. Her reaction on hearing that we had planned our whole holiday around that reading, was one of astonishment. Unknown to us, her partner Molly Malone Cook was ill, and would die the following month. I think Mary was conscious at how nearly that reading almost didn’t happen. But it did happen and it was brilliant. She was utterly disarming – and so funny! I didn’t expect her humour, but it threaded through the whole reading. She read the poem about Donald Rumsfeld and her little dog Percy (named for the poet dear to her heart) and she brought the house down. Afterwards, we queued to meet her, to get our books/poems, the carefully selected ones taken back across the Atlantic, signed. My chosen poems were Finches and Fox. These, from House of Light and West Wind, are personal favourites of mine. But in writing this now, it strikes me that they are both about one of Oliver’s main themes: praise.

The years of waiting for the next collection to come out are long over. She was prolific, and maybe she did write (or publish) too much. Not everything she wrote is of the same calibre of her best work. How could it be? But if I had not read Mary Oliver, I doubt that I would have had the courage to persist with my own writing. And her books written about poetry, Rules for the Dance, and A Poetry Handbook, were guides along the way. She is the poet I keep returning to, and am always the better for it.

My short pilgrimage led me through a frosted Moreland’s Meadow, past the little pond, I don’t know its name. It was iced over …

… I might start calling it Blackwater Pond.

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