Mary Oliver Broke My Heart

171127_r30985I don’t remember when I first read her work.  I’m sure it was in my twenties.

Because in my twenties I knew too much. Everything, actually.  And if you doubt that, just ask my 27 year old self.  I would smile demurely and shy away from your question, but secretly answer in the affirmative.

And then enter Mary.

Mary, the poet.

Mary, the theologian…though unwittingly, perhaps.

Mary, with her short stacked sentences packed on top of one another like pancakes, dripping with meaning.

Heavy, sweet meaning.

Her observations on simple things, like ducks and pipefish, made me wish I knew how to engage with the world in a way that still retained the wonder and awe and love of my young self.

And she was doing it in this way until she was quite old!

She helped me to realize that I knew not only nothing about things like ducks or pipefish, but I knew nothing about a life observed and that I better get with the program, better surround myself with poetry, if I was ever going to know anything about anything.

Let alone, myself.  My life.

Poetry helps us to observe life, and observe it intently. With feeling. With hope and a good bit of angst and…good grief.

It is something, when it works.

Poetry is the picture that prose wishes it could paint.

Poetry is the picture, mind you.  It doesn’t paint it; it is it.

Poetry is prayer both for those who are sure “prayer is perfectly fine for other people” and for those for whom prayer is every breath.  It unites the faithful and the faithless in fancy couplets where they’re forced to hold hands, at least for a moment.

It is subversive.

Submersive, if that is a word.  It doesn’t matter…that’s what it is.

It is like water, winding its way through your soul as your eyes are jarred by

unexplained breaks

and

dangling groups of letters that

just make you hold on because you’re never sure when you’re going to

jump.

And when you do jump, when you build up the courage to actually engage poetry like an explorer spelunking into the cave of words, you crash into meaning.

And your heart breaks.

Like mine did when I first pondered what I’d do with my “one wild and precious life.”

And you’re never put back together in the same way again, thank God.

Her collection House of Light sits on my desk. I crack it for inspiration quite a bit.

But my favorite of her poems is this one below. And it’s the one that I’ll end with, I think, because, well, she’s finally made the journey.

And let me tell you: with her wild and precious life she broke my heart.

And I am grateful for it.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

5 thoughts on “Mary Oliver Broke My Heart

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