Monday, May 28, 2018

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver (2017)

It took me almost four months.  But not four months of dreading and slogging and picking the book up and putting it down in frustration.  This was three four of finding, of savoring, of pondering, of keeping, of dreaming, of wondering, of wanting, of warming.  Not every poem was equally meaningful to me though. Poems are for moments; later, when I read this collection again, if I read this collection again, I may find different poems that stick in my heart,and poems that stuck in my heart may stick in my craw.  That’s the way of poetry.

My English degree is edging towards 30 years old.  That’s 30 years of memories, like scraps of material in a giant rag bag - but a rag bag with a hole in the bottom.  Some scraps have fallen out. I no longer remember any truly scholarly ways to describe poetry. I have no idea what type of Poet that Mary Oliver is.  What I know is that she writes simply, uses language I can understand, writes about nature in ways that resonate with me. Her poems are complicated word puzzles.  

Sometimes she writes about birds or trees that I am not familiar with or that I call something else.  The flowers and scent of the “honey locust” came up several times; what I call locust trees had neither flower nor scent that I recall (if they grow in Southern California, I have yet to see one).  

This collection is, I suppose, the best of the best, “carefully curated” the jacket flap tells me.  By Mary herself, I assume? Mary or whoever chose well.

Her first published poems, age 28, from 1963, are the last poems in the book.  The collection starts with the most recent poems and winds its way back. This was a smart way to exhibit the collection, as the farther back in time you go, the less “honed” the poems become, subtly though.  No poem in this collection is a sore thumb, but the craftsmanship of her writing is more - Oliver-esque I would say - in the latest poems than the inklings.

Some of these poems were written when I was no longer writing poetry, when I thought poetry was dead to me, when I no longer cared about poetry  or thought I needed poetry.

Some of these poems were written when I was writing poetry, when I thought poetry was important, when I was working on a poem every day and delightfully challenged by every poem I wrote.  

Some of these poems were written before I even knew what poetry was or how wonderful it could be, how mysterious a poem could be, how vital a poem could be, how soul saving a poem could be, how right now at that very moment a poem could be.

I made a list of the poems that resonated the most with me. I decided I would choose one line from each poem that represented that rainbow moment for me.  This also gives me a chance to re-read each poem I liked the best.

Three Things to Remember (2012)
    As long as you’re dancing, you can
                    break the rules.

Don't Hesitate (2010)
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate.  Give in to it.

Evidence (2009)
There are many ways to perish, or to flourish.

Song for Autumn (2005)
In the deep fall
  don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
  the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
  freshests of wind?

How Would You Live Then (2004)
What if you suddenly saw that the silver of water was brighter than the silver of money?

The Old Poets of China (2004)
Wherever I am, the world comes after me.

While I Am Writing A Poem to Celebrate Summer, The Meadowlark Begins to Sing (2003)
how I wish I had a voice
like the meadowlark’s

Flare (2000)
A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of life.

May (1994)
I hope to see everything in this world before I die.

I Found A Dead Fox (1994)
There is not a single line or lines that stick out for me in this poem, but the idea of life and death, and the stars, the “hot, hard watchmen of the night” and the imagery of the dead fox and Oliver wanting to sing “something joyous and tender about foxes.”

Morning Glories (1994)
weeds without value humorous
    beautiful weeds

The Sun (1992)
A beautiful poem with a bite at the end:

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

When Death Comes (1992)
This is a complete poem that makes you wide-eyed and wowed.  My favorite line in the poem because it’s such a perfect line:

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

I need this poem now, and I’m going to need this poem later, and later again.  

The Kingfisher (1990)
                          I think this is
the prettiest world — so long as you don’t mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn’t have a splash of happiness?

Morning Poem (1986)
Every morning
the world
is created.

Wild Geese (1986)
This was the first Mary Oliver poem I ever read; thinking back, it was read aloud at a Methodist church I attended for several years.
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination”  Mary Oliver writes, and I know she knows loneliness and despair and depression and heartache and fear and fear of death, and throws words into the world to try to stave that fear off, a good practice.

Beaver Moon - the Suicide of a Friend (1979)
I was just nine years old when this was written, with very little idea of what pain lay ahead.  She begins with these heart wrenching lines “When somewhere life breaks like a pain of glass” and ends with “and somewhere, for someone, life is becoming moment by moment unbearable” that grips you.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary OliverDevotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me nearly four months to finish this book. But it wasn’t four months of slogging and dreading and throwing the book against the wall in anger or despair. Rather, it was four months of savoring, relishing, pondering, keeping, dreaming, and wondering and wandering, and wanting. Not every poem in this collection was equally meaningful to me. But that’s the way of poetry. Some poems stuck in my heart, some stuck in my craw, and when I read this book again in the years ahead, those poems may shift and change, the meangingful become meaningless and vice verse.

Oliver’s poems are simplicity and complexity, like the stars the sky.

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