‘To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.’ – Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver’s poems have been a place of rest for many. Certainly, there is a prayer-like quality to her poetry and many of them have been reduced over time to memorable mantras.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
But the wild world she drew these mantras from had not given her these pearls easily. It opened up to her like all wild things, slowly and cautiously. The trick, as she learnt, was to stop.
The poetry of her early years has a lavish simplicity. Mussels and clams and mushrooms and berries. Even death provides, a small bird’s nest ‘pale and silvery’ is found keeping its chicks warm in a dead rabbit’s fur.
The bounty of this world was no coincidence. The life of the early poet was not one of luxury and Mary turned to the natural world not just for inspiration but for provision. As she walked along the beaches and woods of Provincetown, Massachusetts she scavenged for food, a nut here, a berry there.
These walks taught Mary how to pay attention to whatever presented itself. To stop and notice. Because of this her poetry is filled with chance encounters, a deer, the small song of a small bird, a grasshopper eating the sugar from a birthday cake. And after most of these meetings she stops to ask this question, and how am I to live now? How am I to live? The answer is never quite given. The wild world wriggles away from it, answers a different question, asks another one, appears indifferent. But Mary goes on stopping.
And the more the voice of her poems pauses, the more it sees. The pale stones that last forever, wild geese up above, the green fists of the peonies readying themselves to break her heart. And in all of these places, along with their occasional indifference, the little whisper of love.
That still, small voice that calls out from her poems, calls out from her wild spaces, asks the reader to stop too. To pay attention and receive in the bounty of the still places the little voice of love.