Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Long Life



“Here you are, alive.  Would you like to make a comment?”
Mary Oliver

Here it is the dead of winter and I am reading Mary Oliver.  What a joy it is.  Her book of tiny, jewel-like essays is called Long Life:  Essays and Other Writings (Da Capo Press, 2004).  The essays are also sprinkled with poems previously unpublished, and although I prefer her poetry to her prose, I am finding both meaningful and exquisite on this January afternoon.  She is a writer profoundly influenced by Thoreau and Emerson, with notes of Emily Dickinson.  She is fine wine indeed.

Does this not sound like a Transcendentalist?  “For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water.”  Or this:  “Man finds he has two halves to his existence:  leisure and occupation, and from these separate considerations he now looks upon the world.  In leisure he remembers radiance; in labor he looks for results.”

Oliver has always been the poet of spare necessity, the well-whittled phrase that sticks in the heart.  In that she is like Dickinson with the powerful image, the brutal metaphor, the stark secret.  I wrote about her previously, indeed based an entire essay around her poem, “In Blackwater Woods.”  Part of that story returned me to Stone, gone five years now.  Oliver does not avoid the mortal truth of loving a dog:  “And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life.  Dogs die so soon.  I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also.  It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old—or so it feels.  We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young.  The one gift we cannot give.”  She rises to a quiet, yet joyful conclusion in the face of loss keenly observed and felt—“What would this world be like without dogs?”

She addresses so much the essence of life.  I found myself drinking it in, and remaining thirsty, I went and ordered several books of her poems.  I cannot get enough.  In this group of essays, she speaks of Emerson, perfect days, of comfort and home.  “It is one of the perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not yet acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape—between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows.”  Quite literally, she begs us to look, to see this world in all its imperfections, fading light, yet magnificent glories.  Feel the ice and cold and sting of winter.  But Oliver is also a summer poet, regaling in the walk through the woods, the search along the shores of our lives for those irreplaceable seashells of experience that are there for our taking.  She believes it is Emerson who encourages us to seize the faith and follow, and become “a moral person from the indecisive person.”  She thinks of him when she writes “something worthy.”  It is all worthy here.  Emerson’s words seal the essay celebrating him, and with the unrest in the world, on the streets of our country, they are apt words full of meaning:  “I believe that justice produces justice, and injustice injustice.”

The book is spare and lean, every word polished to a dazzling shine on a quiet winter’s afternoon where one can look out the window upon Dickinson’s certain slant of light.  Mary Oliver asks us to bask in the flow of seasons, the magnificent jet stream winding its way around and around the earth.  The wind, the cold, the heft of a winter’s day:  it’s all as it should be, as it must be in this life.

No comments: