Cultivating wonder: Locals on the late, great Mary Oliver

  • Courtesy Amazon

  • Pink peony flower isolated on black background DANIIL BELYAY

  • “Her poetry can be enjoyed by all, and I am sure that her work has converted many non-poetry readers into poetry lovers,” says former Poet Laureate of Northampton Lesléa Newman of Mary Oliver, above, and with her dog Percy, below. Oliver published over 20 books of poetry, winning the National Book Award in 1992 for “New and Selected Poems” and the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for “American Primitive.” Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/TNS

  • After hearing Oliver speak at Smith College, author Tzivia Gover says she “went home, wrote my resignation letter, and quit my job.” Within months, she says, she was hired to start a poetry program for teen moms at The Care Center, where she’d been volunteering, “a job I held for 16 years.” AP PHOTO/MARK LENNIHAN

For Hampshire Life
Published: 1/31/2019 4:08:06 PM

When news of Mary Oliver’s death was released two weeks ago, my Facebook and Instagram accounts lit up with poem after poem, line after line, with thumbs up and red heart icons numbering close to a hundred for each one. Sure, eulogies quickly appeared in publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times, but it was in the more populist media that Oliver’s impact is more truly seen and felt. Everyone I knew, it seemed, had a favorite Mary Oliver poem, typed out in full and sometimes accompanied by an anecdote amounting to “here’s how this poem saved/ changed/ enriched my life.”

Maybe it’s Oliver’s habit of directly addressing her readers that inspires such intimate feelings of regard, such as when she invites readers to share their despair in exchange for her own in “Wild Geese.” Or the way her poems ask us questions that we really want to answer, such as how we plan to make the most of our lives in “The Summer Day.”

Her poems invite us into intimate, important conversations, and we want — or maybe sometimes need — to reply.

Carol Bevan-Bogart, a poet and facilitator for Voices from Inside, a local organization that runs writing workshops for incarcerated and previously incarcerated women, told me, “My immediate thought when I heard that Mary Oliver had died was the impact that her writing had on the women in VFI. I remembered an incredible poem that one of the women, Erica McLean, wrote in response to the poem ‘Peonies.’ ”

“Erica used to bring her baby daughter to the group and hold her in one arm while she wrote with the other,” Bevan-Bogart continues. “There are other Oliver poems that I love and that we introduced to the women in the writing group, but the moment when Erica read her poem will stay with me forever.  I still weep when I read it.”

Echoing a line from “Peonies,” McLean begins her poem with the tentative question, “Do I love this world?” She goes on to write about its hardships, but ends by addressing herself: 

“Be brave, my dear,

and hurry to a life you adore, cherish,

as if your arms are filled with the honeyed heaviness

of the white and pink petals of lace

we call a peony.”

Within the space of a poem, McLean has moved from doubt to conviction, hesitation to action. And someone has learned why beauty exists — to give us courage and hope.

“She feeds my optimism about the life process, and encourages the anti-cynic in me,” says Bill Pfeiffer, an ecologist from Putney, VT who collaborates with the HeARTbeat Collective in Leeds. “She shows us that we are not just disempowered victims of society, but brings us back into community with the rest of nature.”

Tzivia Gover, another local poet and author, taught poetry at The Care Center in Holyoke to teenage mothers. Although she gave her students many Oliver poems over the years, she thought their favorite was “The Journey.”

“My students, who were working so hard to get their education, care for their babies, and make it in a world despite financial poverty, racism, and all the rest — loved that poem. It gave them permission and inspiration to keep moving forward on their journeys.”

Oliver’s work inspired Gover, as well, to find that beloved work. At a point when she was deeply unhappy at her job, she heard Oliver herself read at Smith College.

“When Mary Oliver recited those famous last lines from her poem ‘The Summer Day,’ asking what I intended to do with my life, I went home, wrote my resignation letter, and quit my job. At the time, I was volunteering an hour a week teaching poetry at The Care Center in Holyoke to teen moms who’d dropped out of high school. Within months, I was hired to start a poetry program there, a job I held for 16 years.”

How we live and effect change in our lives is very much on Oliver’s mind, but the question comes up in different ways in many poems. Her long career as a poet has coincided with a time when many people actively seek alternatives to an isolated, consumerist way of life, and her poems have become staples in the bibliotherapy movement, which uses literature to work through depression, trauma and self-harming behavior.

“I have offered many of her poems to friends, family, and, as a therapist, my clients,” says Jackie Humphreys, who uses mindfulness and writing in her Deerfield practice. “ ‘When Death Comes,’ ‘The Journey,’ ‘Wild Geese,’ ‘Humpbacks’ all offer a way in toward reflection and understanding some of the most difficult human experiences as well as the most joyous. ‘The Journey’ is one I have used with adult survivors of sexual abuse. What often deeply resonates for survivors is the message of courage.”

That poem — which describes fleeing a house full of shouting to save one’s own life — also describes how eventually, that awful voice in our head can be replaced with our own.

Often compared to Emily Dickinson for her reticence, Oliver spoke of her own sexual abuse history in an interview for O Magazine in 2011. “I want to be braver and more honest about my life,” she said. “When you’re sexually abused, there’s a lot of damage — that’s the first time I’ve said that out loud.”

“Thus she came to embody, in Jungian terms, the archetype of the wounded healer,” notes Elliot Tarry, who is deeply connected to the natural beauty of Montague. “And she healed herself through the Earth and passed that knowledge on to the world.”

In other words, if Oliver is a healer, nature is the medicine.

Oliver often characterized her work as “paying attention,” and teaches her readers how to do that through her lovingly detailed poems. What exactly can change and heal people’s lives when attention is paid to it? In “The Summer Day,” it’s a grasshopper, a very particular one observed in the kinds of personal characteristics that we associate more with individuals than things. Grasshoppers, too, have a life, a destiny, and something to teach, Oliver seems to say.

Tarry, who also leads spiritual ceremonies on the banks of the Sawmill River, added, “For years I was fond of telling other Earth worshippers that we must borrow a page from Evangelicals and ‘testify for Mother Earth.’ Mary Oliver did so in the purest Apostolic way — poetry being the highest form of spiritual expression.”

I heard similar reports from Christians. Nerissa Nields, a Northampton musician, poet, novelist, and writing workshop facilitator, told me, “I first heard Mary Oliver’s poetry in church. […] In my own church in West Cummington, we read her poem ‘Maybe’ as often as many passages of the Bible. I have written songs and sermons on that one poem.”

Nields also notes how the physical and spiritual worlds are fused in Oliver’s poems. “She is so humble in her observations, and by that I mean she is close to the humus of the earth — seeing at the most basic levels and then elevating to something universal and wise.”

The idea that the world of nature is infused with spirit hearkens back to New England’s Transcendentalist movement and Massachusetts’ poets Emerson and Thoreau, a tradition Oliver, who lived in Provincetown with her partner Molly Malone Cook for over 40 years, became part of as she wandered our lovely state’s shores and forests, keeping pencils hidden behind trees in case poems came to her on these walks.

Amy Dryansky, poet laureate of Northampton, says, “I would put her firmly within the tradition of ‘wisdom’ poets.”

Or, as George Lenker, a Northampton writer and raconteur, notes, “Her work was always grounded in the magic of the actual world around her.”

Through her descriptions of wonder, one of our earliest and most natural responses to the world, Oliver manages to connect to a wide variety of readers, a much broader audience than the somewhat insular poetry crowd.

“What dazzles me about her writing is … most importantly, the fact that her poetry is written in a way that is completely accessible. Her poetry can be enjoyed by all, and I am sure that her work has converted many non-poetry readers into poetry lovers,” says Lesléa Newman, a former Poet Laureate of Northampton.

It is odd that this broad appeal has been seen as somehow detracting of her work. Dryansky points out, “There’s a sense that because she’s so beloved by so many, because her work is accessible and understandable, that it’s somehow not up to the standards of ‘real’ poetry.”

Oliver herself seemed to relish her non-elitism. In a 2015 interview with Krista Tippett for the NPR podcast “On Being,” Oliver recounted running into her plumber at the hardware store and the two of them asking how each other’s work was going. “I was taken as somebody who worked like anybody else. … And it was the same thing. There was no sense of eliteness or difference, and that was very nice.”

In her 83 years of life, Oliver published over 20 books of poetry, “American Primitive” winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and “New and Selected Poems” winning the National Book Award in 1992. More than these achievements and honors, however, her legacy lives in the model she set for her many devoted readers of how to truly inhabit their lives rather than merely visit them, as captured in “When Death Comes.”

Her poems tell us of simple faith — faith in life and nature, and even faith in death. It cannot be an accident that she became the best-selling poet of our cynical, ironic age. No matter how tempted by skepticism we become, Oliver’s example remains a legacy for us, “demonstrating,” as Pfeiffer says, “what it looks like to have total trust in the universe.”

 Jennifer Abeles is a writer and adjunct professor of English at Holyoke Community College. She is also the President of the Board of Directors for Voices from Inside, a local organization that facilitates expressive writing workshops for incarcerated women, previously incarcerated women, and women in recovery from addiction.

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