“And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books – can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”
Mary Oliver is probably most famous for her poetry which is celebratory, rapturous and reverential and which is some of the most lovely poetry I’ve ever read and suffers, if suffer is the right word, from lacking negativity and glitz and for its humane and generous spirit. Which is another way of saying that despite her Pulitzer Prize there are elements of the poetic establishment which don’t take her very seriously. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry which is centred, rooted in the natural world, in which she explores the life of snakes and starfish and owls and in so doing reveals something truthful and majestic about human life and human experience, so you can imagine my absolute pleasure when I discovered that she also had a collection of essays, Upstream, which equally celebrated and explored and glorified the natural world. Amongst other things. Upstream is one of the few books I’ve bought this year, in total I’ve bought only three (for myself, I have gifted others. A birthday, without books, is birthday not worth having) and one of them was another copy of a book I already owned (though a beautiful one) and the other was a mistake. But I digress.
Upstream is one of those books which sits right in the middle of what I’m currently thinking and feeling and desiring. It is a book which reflects on the powerful, nurturing and exciting ways in which the natural world, and our connection to it, can shape our lives. It is a book about art and the place of art in moving the world forward. It is about our literary friends and the way that certain books, certain writers, become ingrained in our existence such that we cannot separate ourselves from them. It is rich with observations and sensations, it is, in places, a little disturbing and it is reflective and as beautiful as Oliver’s poems are. Each essay is a nugget of something, a reminder, perhaps, of how to reconnect with ourselves and with the world around us, using all of our senses and explorative powers. It is about centring ourselves in our lives and discovering who we are through it. It is about reminding ourselves who we are and how to bring meaning to our lives.
“With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them. I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness.”
The book is split into five discreet sections, each focusing on a particular subject or essays which touch upon, or dance around, certain aspects of Oliver’s thinking. There’s a nebulousness to it, a sense that certain essays about belong in other sections but for whatever reason, maybe a vague intuition, Oliver has placed it where she has. The first section centres around her youth, influences on her youth and her discovery of the power of nature and the longing for poetry. In this she references her explorations, her love of Walt Whitman (who I have now bumped up my ‘to read’ list, having, for some time, had a copy of Leaves of Grass waiting to be read), and her discovery of poetry and her creative life. One of the essays, Power and Time, is a brilliant primer for anyone interested in developing a creative, artistic life and a powerful essay in itself. In it Oliver sets out the different aspects of herself: the child, the ordinary and regular person, and the creative artist and the way each of them shape and define her. But it is the last, the artistic soul, which dominates and which demands that she set aside ordinary and regular things so that her art can grow. As she describes:
“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
Sigh. I suspect there are many of us that recognise the call that we set aside so we could make dentists appointments or dinner, or arrange birthday parties or presents, or pay the bills and such things. This essay I returned to several times because it is so straightforward and so honest and so compelling in its identification of how to pursue art, if art is what you think you are capable of.
The second section is based around water – pond and the sea and the creatures that live within it. There’s an essay called Sister Turtle which I think might disturb some people for reasons I won’t go into here but which show Oliver’s behaviour towards the natural world to be consistently explorative, but explorative in a way which is, perhaps, uncommon. If that sounds mysterious and vague it is quite deliberately so. The third part focuses on particular writers: Emerson, Whitman, Poe, Wordsworth and her exploration of Poe in particular is interesting though I enjoyed her work on Emerson much more. The fourth part is more of a jumble of nature essays focusing on birds, light and building and this, too, includes a particularly powerful essay called Winter Hours in which Oliver explores the way her mind has turned to something like faith, or rather something which is not empirical knowledge or reason, and how this is shaping her interests. As she explains:
“Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts. In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.”
And I think this resonates with me because I feel something similar, as she says “Something in me still starves”, and I feel this too, not exactly that something is missing but that I have permitted something which I previously held to let go. I am grasping for something and in this grasping, this exploration, I am finding something which I had forgotten and I think that something is the joy and the compelling darkness of the unknown, of the excitement of questions and investigation, of plundering some uncertain depths, digging your hands into the mire, just to see what is there. And this thing, whatever it is, is connected to writing and, I think, rediscovering the version of me which is a writer. And it is all new and interesting and scary, and somehow Oliver, the great writer that she is, captures it though her capturing is as askew as the little house she builds for the sheer pleasure of it. But pleasure it is, messy and glorious and unnameable.
I am so very glad I caved and invested in a copy of Upstream. I know it is a book I will treasure for a long time to come, as I treasure my book of her poetry. And I could not write, here, about Mary Oliver and not include a poem, because it is what she is known for after all, and her poems are lovely. And maybe you’ve never read one. So just in case, here’s possibly her most famous: Wild Geese. Enjoy.
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 your 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.