Sunday, January 20, 2019

Politics and Poetry

Without care, this Blog could become the Mary Oliver Fan Club site! But in honor of this marvelous writer, and while it’s fresh, at least two more of some 50 poems I’d love to share.

If you know her work, you’re aware that she probably writes less about people and the human world than any other poet, living or dead. So when she does slip in a poem about politics, for example, you stand up and pay attention. It’s not that she doesn’t care. More that she made the choice of placing the center of her life elsewhere, into the reliable world of Nature’s bounty, even with its storms and death and expected and unexpected terrors.  Consider this poem from her book Red Bird:

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,

Nor 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,

Of for you, oldest of friends; hope;
Or for you, newest of friends: faith;

Or for you, silliest and dearest of surprises, my
Own life.

On the opposite page is another, yet more political poem, published in 2008 (before Obama’s election), that doesn’t console at the end with love, hope and faith and describes so perfectly part of who we have been as a country and never more disastrously than today.

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.

How we need poets to tell the truth!


A twelve-day marathon of non-stop music teaching

And now it’s Sunday.

I could have slept late, but I didn’t.

At 6am, the sentences were swirling about to be placed

in the book that has waited patiently,

neglected amidst all the comings and goings.

If I stayed under the covers,

they would leave, never to come back.

So here I am, sleep still beckoning in its foggy way.

But the bright screen awaits the black shapes that speak

of the twelve days I have just lived,

hoping to guide others foolish enough to disturb their own sleep

by dancing down this beckoning path.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Art and Remembrance

Driving to my workshop today, my 12th day in a row of teaching and still with energy to do so, I still had Mary Oliver on my mind. A first draft poem popped into my head and at a stoplight, took my i-Phone and dictated it into the Notes feature. Well, there’s an interesting use of that technology! Here’s the poem:

Art and Remembrance

What is art but the breadcrumbs

         we leave behind as we enter the dark forest,

              in hope that we will be found—

                        or at least remembered.

Bach’s notes strewn along the path,

        Georgia O-Keefe’s flowers
                   Mary Oliver’s perfect words

They will never be alone in the world to which they’ve flown

And they keep us company in our aloneness, give us comfort

as we step, cautiously,

 into the black woods,

               steering us away

                         from the witch’s cottage.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Lunch with Mary Oliver

Spent the day reading through the many books of Mary Oliver poetry I have, looking for choice poems to read at my workshop tomorrow. Seems like the appropriate way to honor the passing of this fine poet. Found myself surprised by how long I've been a fan and then remembered writing a poem in 2006 that included her. Here it is:


                      © 2006 Doug Goodkin

Two hours of cycling through the fog,
Winding through the hills of Marin
Just at the Larkspur border,
The sun emerged.
Perfect for my sidewalk lunch at the Left Bank café.

I quickly ordered my meal
and browsed through a new book of poems
by Mary Oliver.
How happy I was, edging to the state of gratitude that Ms. Oliver
sings so constantly and eloquently.
And it was just at that moment of euphoria, just as I was nodding in
agreement with her praise of the world,
that my ear caught the voice
of the woman at the table next to mine
dining with her two friends.

She was telling them about her Pilates workout
And her friend who sailed to Costa Rica
And the new insulation in her house.
And on she went,
and on,
and on,
 like an out-of-tune oboe
circular breathing through a themeless melody.

My iced tea arrived and she had yet to take even an 8th note rest in her Symphony of
Small Talk.

Then came my hearty whole wheat bread appetizer
and her friends had still not gotten a word in edgewise,
sideways or
through the back door.

The waiter brought my Jacques Pépin roasted eggplant sandwich and the
Vapid Wagnerian Opera about Nothing droned on with nary a change in chord.
My French Fries served vertically in a coned napkin were powerless to stop her
And by the iced tea refill,
 still not a hint of a cadence.

How I wanted to shout, “NOBODY CARES ABOUT
like a thunderous timpani
announcing the final chords
           of a concert that never should have been.

But instead, I just finished the last leaf of arugula on my plate
and stared at the empty chair opposite me,
wondering what it would be like
             if Mary Oliver was sitting there having lunch with me.
what kind of conversation we would have.
And how she would react to this radio tuned to the wrong frequency.
I pictured her eating thoughtfully and then looking up with a wide grin and announcing,

“Just listen to the rustle of those eucalyptus leaves in the wind.”

A Candle for Mary Oliver

“Be alive until you are not” wrote poet Mary Oliver and alas, she is no more. And the world just got one great soul poorer. She left us a rich legacy of reminders to keep our astonishment and wonder alive, to partake in the unspeakable beauty of this world that she took the trouble to speak, knowing her words would always be so much less than the kingfisher, clam or goldenrod flowers she kept company with. I know of few people who were as consistently and deeply connected to the living things we share the planet with, who spent so many mornings of her life awakening with the dawn and walking through the woods of her Cape Cod home, notebook in hand, to capture a bit of the uncapturable.

I imagine her wholly at peace with the natural conclusion of her days well-spent, each one of 83 years. And yet there is the loss and grief knowing I’ll roam the bookstore in search of her next book and it will not be. Though she wrote to the very end and each time, as eloquently, if not more so.

Reading of her passing on an online obituary, I suffered the shock of seeing below the article the those horrible faces that people the news—Mitch McConnell, Ann Coulter, Guiliani, the ever-present Trump and the like. It’s extraordinary to think these demonic people are in the same species as someone of Ms. Oliver’s grace, courage and loving presence. Their bitterness and soul-ugliness dominate our national discourse and indeed, few Americans will know who Mary Oliver is or was or mourn her passing. She herself could not help but be aware of their presence, affected by their smallness and hurtful power, but daily she made the wise choice of choosing better company—her beloved dogs, the wild branches of trees, the bones of whales. We would all do well to remember her example. Do what we must to halt the ever encroaching tide of evil and ignorance, but not get swept out in their undertow. Make the daily choice of kissing or dancing or singing even if we’re not choir-trained, to sit and watch God’s creatures being wholly themselves and remember the beauty that we are and can be if we but pay attention.

The perfection of the natural world and our possibility of wholly belonging to it were Ms. Oliver’s constant themes. Both are gifted to us for free but we stubborn mortals refuse to notice or take the time or trouble to remember. Her work was made to remind us:

I know you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

And so she did. And now her words will come no more. I, for one, will miss them.

R.I.P., Mary Oliver.

PS I posted a short obituary on Facebook and noticed that all the comments of people who shared my love of her poetry were women. So I wrote:

“I can't help but notice no men have claimed their admiration yet in the comments. Come on, guys! We are larger than the swagger and the gun-tote and the greed and the power hunger. And we have a generation of boys to initiate into the other rooms of the soul. I hope we have space in our lives for the wonder, astonishment, tenderness, eloquence and fierce courage that Ms. Oliver lived.”