Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pencils in the Trees

When a poet has published twenty-seven collections of her work, won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Award for Poetry and been awarded three Honorary Doctorates, an extensive introduction with commentary doesn’t seem all that necessary.

MARY OLIVER was born in Maple Heights, Ohio in 1935. She has lived for years in Provincetown, Massachusetts. An avid walker, her daily walks near home provide the imagery that fills her poems. In a rare interview, the poet described walking once in the woods and discovering she had no pen and later hiding pencils in the trees so she would never be stuck again. The three poems below are included in her 1992 collection, New and Selected Poems.


In Jakarta,

among the vendors

of flowers and soft drinks,

I saw a child

with a hideous mouth,


and I knew the wound was made

for a way to stay alive.

What I gave him

wouldn't keep a dog alive.

What he gave me

from the brown coin

of his sweating face

was a look of cunning.

I carry it

like a bead of acid

to remember how,

once in a while,

you can creep out of your own life

and become someone else—

an explosion

in that nest of wires

we call the imagination.

I will never see him

again, I suppose.

But what of this rag,

this shadow

flung like a boy’s body

into the walls

of my mind, bleeding

their sour taste—

insult and anger,

the great movers?


The first fish

I ever caught

would not lie down

quiet in the pail

but flailed and sucked

at the burning

amazement of the air

and died

in the slow pouring off

of rainbows. Later

I opened his body and separated

the flesh from the bones

and ate him. Now the sea

is in me: I am the fish, the fish

glitters in me; we are

risen, tangled together, certain to fall

back to the sea. Out of pain,

and pain, and more pain

we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished

by the mystery.


She sends me news of bluejays, frost,
Of stars and now the harvest moon
That rides above the stricken hills.
Lightly, she speaks of cold, of pain,
And lists what is already lost.
Here where my life seems hard and slow,
I read of glowing melons piled
Beside the door, and baskets filled
With fennel, rosemary and dill,
While all she could not gather in
Or hide in leaves, grows black and falls.
Here where my life seems hard and strange,
I read her wild excitement when
Stars climb, frost comes, and bluejays sing.
The broken year will make no change
Upon her wise and whirling heart;—
She knows how people always plan
To live their lives, and never do.
She will not tell me if she cries.

I touch the crosses by her name;
I fold the pages as I rise,
And tip the envelope, from which
Drift scraps of borage, woodbine, rue.

1 comment:

  1. Incredible. Every writer's dream, to walk the seashore or woods and let pristine images invade the mind. Evocative writing is surely one of man's highest achievements; to describe mundane things--bluejays, frost, stars, a harvest moon--and make them universal is heaven on earth.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America