Not Yet a God of Even the Palest Flowers
From a conversation about the darker side of Mary Oliver, with three poems.
On Monday I went out in the July heat and made my way across the northern edge of the Jardin Nelson Mandela. The smell of chlorine was wafting up through grates from the underground swimming pool. In an old building on the rue Coquillière, I passed through two sets of wooden doors and then descended an absurdly narrow spiral staircase down to an underground recording studio. I was there to give an interview about the late poet Mary Oliver, who was my college writing teacher and academic advisor. Pushkin Industries, a podcast and audiobook company, is making a book-length audio documentary about her, and they wanted to speak to former students like myself.
Before the interview, the producer had asked me to prepare “two or three poems” of Mary’s that were meaningful to me. I chose two, Rage and Tecumseh. I chose Rage because it isn’t a very well known poem, even though it comes right before the very famous Wild Geese in her 1986 collection Dream Work. (In case you don’t remember, Wild Geese is the one that begins: “You do not have to be good…”).
Rage is important because without it—without its terrible specificity— poems like Wild Geese are taken out of context. Rage is the scorched internal landscape on which the “sun and the clear pebbles of the rain” from Wild Geese are falling. Rage’s dark sky is what clears to become “clean and blue”, with wild geese flying across it, “announcing your place in the family of things”. It is what happened to the “soft animal of the body,” of her body, before it found a way to simply “love what it loves.”
by Mary Oliver
You are the dark song
of the morning;
serious and slow,
you shave, you dress,
you descend the stairs
in your public clothes
and drive away, you become
the wise and powerful one
who makes all the days
possible in the world.
But you were also the red song
in the night,
stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body,
leaving your bitter taste.
And forever those nights snarl
the delicate machinery of the days.
When the child’s mother smiles
you see on her cheekbones
a truth you will never confess;
and you see how the child grows–
timidly, crouching in corners.
Sometimes in the wide night
you hear the most mournful cry,
a ravished and terrible moment.
In your dreams she’s a tree
that will never come to leaf–
in your dreams she’s a watch
you dropped on the dark stones
till no one could gather the fragments–
in your dreams you have sullied and murdered,
and dreams do not lie.
(from Dream Work)
I first read this poem when I was 14 or 15 years old. There was a lot of difficulty and darkness going on in my own life then. I didn’t relate to the specific narrative—that’s not what happened to me, other things did—but the poem’s images have stayed with me for decades. Those terrible things that snarl the delicate machinery of our days. That dream logic, of the watch dropped on the stones till no one could gather the fragments. I knew that it was a personal poem that hid in the second and third person; that you, that she.
I feel a lot of frustration when people in the literary world who don’t really know anything about Mary, don’t know about Rage or where it came from, talk about her like she’s just some kind of Goop-ified Instagram poet. People who only know her poems because they heard someone read excerpts of them at the end of a yoga class. This was especially difficult just after she died. Everyone craves authenticity, and yet when someone is as nakedly earnest as Mary was, a certain kind of person finds that hard to deal with. Mary was private. Very private. And on the blank outer wall of that privacy, lazy images have been projected. In a world of oversharing and the attention economy, a desire for privacy is suspect.
I was surprised by how many personal questions I was asked during the course of the interview. Who was I when I arrived in Mary’s classes at eighteen? How did I relate to the physical landscape where I grew up? What did I think of the resonance between the darkness in Mary’s childhood and the one in my own?
The second poem I had prepared, Tecumseh, is from the 1983 collection American Primitive.
by Mary Oliver
I went down not long ago
to the Mad River, under the willows
I knelt and drank from that crumpled flow, call it
what madness you will, there's a sickness
worse than the risk of death and that's
forgetting what we should never forget.
Tecumseh lived here.
The wounds of the past
are ignored, but hang on
like the litter that snags on the yellow branches
newspapers and plastic bags, after the rains.
Where are the Shawnee now?
Do you know? Or would you have to write
to Washington, and even then
whatever they said,
would you believe them? Sometimes
I would like to paint my body red and go out into
the glittering snow
His name meant Shooting Star.
From Mad River country north to the border
he gathered the tribes
and armed them one more time. He vowed
to keep Ohio and it took him
over twenty years to fail.
After the bloody and final fighting at Thames
it was over, except
his body could not be found.
It was never found
and you can do whatever you want with that, say
his people came in the black leaves of the night,
and hauled him to a secret grave, or that
he turned into a little boy again, and leaped
into a birch canoe and went
rowing home again down the rivers. Anyway,
this much I'm sure of: if we ever meet him, we'll know it,
he will still be
The whole interview ended up feeling quite emotional for me. We talked a lot about time and death. I hadn’t really thought beforehand about the fact that I had chosen two dark poems, and both of them with a kind of violence at the center. Tecumseh was an important poem to me in high school, long before it became fashionable for white people to announce on which stolen tribal lands they were about to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner. Even today, whenever I read it aloud to someone, I feel tears well up. That set up: “he vowed to keep Ohio and it took him over twenty years to fail.”
I ended up reading a third poem, which I hadn’t prepared, called The Kookaburas, from her 1992 collection New and Selected Poems. I hadn’t even remembered much about it except that there were kookaburras in it, and that it had given me this unsettled, unnamable feeling that had stayed with me through the decades.
by Mary Oliver
In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to stride out of a cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, pressed against the edge of their cage,
asked me to open the door.
Years later I remember how I didn't do it,
how instead I walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn't want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.
We talked about regret, how the things we regret the most, the things that haunt us, are the things we’ve done or failed to do out of our own weakness. Absorbed in our own dramas, avoiding our own fears, we can barely stand to look at the evil we do in inattention. The ways in which we become the worst versions of ourselves. In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator. The interviewer asked me how I try to be, instead, “a god of flowers”, but I struggled to answer, because I don’t know that I do. She kept wanting me to speak in the first person, to say what I myself do. But it didn’t feel natural, because I’m not sure I see things like that, or that I meant to apply my ideas to my personal experience. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure that a god of flowers is something that we can strive to become, or that one exists, “just waiting”, in the heart of everyone. Maybe I didn’t really understand the question.
At the end of the interview, I emerged back into the sunny, bright, chlorine world, feeling as if I had time-traveled. I could get nothing done for the rest of the day. The interview felt like it went well, or I hope it did, but one can never really tell. More and more I find myself valuing my privacy, and am hesitant to break the seal.
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