Monday, June 27, 2011

The Rampant Dust

Mary Oliver’s name first popped up here on March 1 of this year, an offering of three poems by the poet The New York Times called far and away America’s bestselling poet. Little question of her popularity or her reputation as poet exemplar—probably one of the few who has enjoyed the success of earning a living as a poet for many years. So, let’s skip the rehashing of her résumé or accumulated awards and go right to a prose poem called “Dust” published first in 2000.

The poem is in three parts and was first published in Shenandoah. The next year it appeared in Best American Essays 2001, and later in Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, a 2004 collection of Oliver’s work. I came upon “Dust” randomly. In a mood for non-fiction and picking up the Best American Essays, the book fell open to Mary Oliver. Yeah, I know—a poem included in a book of essays? I think the editor looked at it, saw an unbroken string of prose-like lines and declared it an essay. Fine, whatever you call it the beauty of the piece can’t be altered by editorial classification.

For Oliver, dust is a ghost that ‘lives’ in the aftermath of life and existence, in the wake of creation, in the rubble of crashing lives and heavenly bodies. Reading even a small selection of the writer’s poems and essays will bring some understanding of how closely Mary Oliver holds the word ‘dust’ and how often, how well she employs it to strike the perfect chord. The word appears again and again in poems, in the whole of Oliver’s writing as an old shoe, a photograph, deceased dog, bright dust, gardens of dust…ghosts of things past.

In the words of one Mary Oliver admirer, the poet ‘…captures the grieving world in all its beauty.’ We can apply those words very fittingly to the prose poem “Dust.” Unfortunately, there’s room here to include only the last section of a poem in three parts. Part 1 gives us a catalog of kept tokens, envelopes, photos, the anonymous collections of a loved one; Part 2 brings the expected Mary Oliver, the eye on nature and it’s connection in our lives, and the dust it leaves behind; Part 3 is an elegy to the absence of departed pets, the absence of things connected to that life passed, a dog’s footstool…

For the first time in twenty-five years there’s no small footstool next to the bed on which to break one’s toes. The little dogs, first Jasper and then Bear, are gone. How neatening is loss, since it only takes away! One less mouth to feed, to walk, to bathe, to hold. One less sentient creature to cherish, to worry over, to feel for, to receive comfort from. And where is he, little Bear, the latest to leave us? We watch the white clouds carefully; sooner or later we will see him, sailing away in careless and beautiful serenity. Of what rich and ornate stuff the powerful and uncontainable gods invented the world, out of the rampant dust! The silky brant, the scarf of chiffon, the letter, the empty envelope, the black ducks, the old shoes, the little white dog fall away, fall away, and all the music of our lives is in them. The gods act as they act for what purpose we do not know, but this we do understand: the world could not be made without the swirl and whirlwind of our deepest attention and our cherishing. And if I mean the god of the sky, I mean also the god of the river—not only the god of the gold-speckled cathedral but the lord of the green field, where people pause casually and snap each other’s picture; where thrushes pump out their darkling songs; where little dogs bark and leap, their ears tossing, joyously, as they run toward us.

1 comment:

  1. Will have to keep my browsing bookstore eye out for Mary Oliver's books. And will see what they might have among the used internet sites. Yeah, I need more books. Will find a place on a stack or squeezed into a shelf somewhere. Good stuff.


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