Thirst is Mary Oliver's book of poems written after the death of her beloved partner, Molly Malone Cook (there's a name for a poet's lover if ever there was one!). It also chronicles Oliver's flirtation with xianity. I'm biased, but I find a number of the explicitly xian poems below Oliver's usual standards; that said, you've got to love an established poet who takes the kind of risks that Oliver keeps on taking. She opens with one of my favorite quotes from early xianity:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame." You know that Rumi would have said the same thing.
Oliver's first poem, Messenger, works:
My work is loving the world. Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird -- equal seekers of sweetness. Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums. Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished. The phoebe, the delphinium, The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever.
So does her paen to Cook, Those Days:
When I think of her I think of the long summer days she lay in the sun, how she loved the sun, how we spread our blankets, and friends came, and
the dogs played, and then I would get restless and get up and go off to the woods and the fields, and the afternoon would
soften gradually and finally I would come home, through the long shadows, and into the house where she would be
my glorious welcoming, tan and hungry and ready to tell the hurtless gossips of the day and how I listened leisurely while I put
around the room flowers in jars of water -- daisies, butter-and-eggs, and everlasting -- unlike our lives they trembled and shimmered everywhere.
Isn't that how you'd describe every real lover you've ever had: my glorious welcoming, tan and hungry and ready?
She's less successful, IMHO, when she becomes explicitly xian:
The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist
Something has happened to the bread and the wine.
They have been blessed. What now? The body leans forward
to receive the gift from the priest's hand, then the chalice.
They are something else now from what they were before this began.
I want to see Jesus, maybe in the clouds
or on the shore, just walking, beautiful man
and clearly someone else besides.
On the hard days I ask myself if I ever will.
Also there are times my body whispers to me that I have.
It's not a bad poem, it's just not up to Oliver's typical standards. You never get that ice-pick-in-the-guts moment of: "Oh, my, YES!" that she so regularly delivers when writing about Nature. And, of course, Oliver's had so many real encounters with the God:
The Place I Want to Get Back To is where in the pinewoods in the moments between the darkness
and first light two deer came walking down the hill and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay this one is okay, let's see who she is and why she is sitting
on the ground, like that, so quiet, as if asleep, or in a dream, but anyway, harmless;
and so they came on their slender legs and gazed upon me not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look and look and look into the faces of the flowers; and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life bring to me that could exceed that brief moment? For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods, not waiting, exactly, just lingering. Such gifts, bestowed can't be repeated.
If you want to talk about this come to visit. I live in the house near the corner, which I have named Gratitude.
Going every day for twenty years to the same woods, not waiting, exactly, just lingering. That will suddenly set you alight, all flame. Before enlightenment, chop wood carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. But the wood and the water are something else now from what they were before this began.
I'm a woman, a Witch, a mother, a grandmother, an eco-feminist, a gardener, a reader, a writer, and a priestess of the Great Mother Earth. Hecate appears in the
Homeric Ode to Demeter, which tells of Hades who caught Persophone
"up reluctant on his golden car and bare her away lamenting. . . . But no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal men, heard her voice, nor yet the olive-trees bearing rich fruit: only tenderhearted Hecate, bright-coiffed, the daughter of Persaeus, heard the girl from her cave . . . ."