Thursday, May 08, 2008


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
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

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

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


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.


shaw kenawe said...

I have always loved her.

Thanks for a great post, Goddess.

Sia said...

I needed those Pagan poems today. I'll tell you why another time.

Thank you,