Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (Bloodaxe World Poets, 2004)
Introduced by Anthony Daly
Listening to Mary Oliver read any of her work (in that inimitable Midwestern / New England drawl) (you can (over)hear her, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMrBN0enNJI ) is tantamount to communing with Mother Nature as she wanders (wonders) about the wilderness of the World, muttering at us (to herself) like a (benevolent) crone, fairy godmother, or ‘wise woman.’
“You do not have to be good”, she assures us, you needn’t walk on your knees …”
Amongst (relatively) recent Anglo-American poetry, RS Thomas may approach her level of ‘prayerful’ (dis)engagement, but his work is considerably bleaker and (therefore) less demanding (from a Christianarchist point of view). MO’s mo is never to abandon little Hope, or ‘wish-full thinking,’ (the only sort, it seems to me, ever worthwhile).
Geoffrey Hill‘s (startling) “Ovid in the Third Reich” may echo (resonate with) this degree of (dis)passionate (almost Puritanical) gravitas (about the fate of the poet, the planet, or prophecy) in our time. More than Hill, however, Oliver is infused with a (profound) fondness for physical (as distinct from metaphysical) things – which is not an affectation so much as (deepening) affection, a chastening Charity (‘love’ at its most endearing, enduring, even astonishing or miraculous).
Frankly, some of her poems (more than a few, alas) are embarrassingly ‘bad’ (slipshod), but many are magnificent, amongst the very best in our language, and this range (in quality) is not insignificant. It shows her unwillingness (refusal) to disown the disabled; their (alleged) invalidity is part of their appeal (to anyone like her). Amongst my generation, Mother Teresa, maybe, had this much compassion or sisterhood, but Oliver extends it to all creatures (as such) (most especially, ‘dogs’) not just humankind.
Her (seriously playful) work is summarised most aptly perhaps in the title poem:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Anyone advanced in years, like myself, I suspect, will want to collect all her (30 or so) books to read and cherish (before checking out) but (in the mean while) this (representative) selection is as good a place as any to begin. It has become quite ‘collectible’ (expensive) (price-wise) but anyone anxious (impatient) to get started could do worse than consult the website: http://maryoliver.beacon.org/ or this fan page (amongst others) https://uk.pinterest.com/explore/mary-oliver-quotes/.
A few years ago (before I knew of her work) the volume was given to me by another (maternal) poet I met through the internet (so there are some benefits to be had with technology, after all) and I (still) consider it one of the most wonderful gifts I’ve ever been blessed by.
So, thank you, Sophia. And thank you, MO. And thank you, gentle reader, for putting up with my (gruff) opinions, parentheses and so forth (however briefly).
Mary Oliver reading ‘Wild Geese’: