Treasure your beautiful world

Wild Geese (a poem by Mary Oliver)

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 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.

It was the wonderful Gena Hemshaw who introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Wild Geese’, and I have loved it ever since. Like Gena, I’ve found that the poem comforts me in times when the thoughts in my head are loud and tangled. And like Oliver herself, I’ve sought comfort in nature for many years. Looking up at the sky and down at the ground and out to the horizon reminds me of my place in the world. It heals me, if only temporarily.



Light on water.

 

But how true are Oliver’s words these days? How much longer can we find solace in nature if by nature what we mean is the way things are naturally, the way things have always been and the way they always will be?

It is impossible to ignore the discussion scientists and environmentalists are now having across the world about the climate crisis, the climate emergency. (That is, it’s impossible to ignore unless — and forgive me for saying this, but I will say it anyway — unless you are a white, male, middle-aged politician who thinks only about getting re-elected for another term of leadership.) It is impossible, too, to ignore the evidence of it as we go about our days. Wildfires, polar ice melt, rising land and sea temperatures, coral bleaching, floods, not to mention pandemics — here they all are, right in front of our faces.

These days when I read Mary Oliver’s words I feel despair rise thick in my throat.



Clouds above water.

 

I work very hard to inject a positive note in the posts on this blog. I don’t intend this to be a site for depression and maudlin pondering. But I cannot find a positive note to interject here when it comes to our changing natural environment.

I can only urge you, each and every one of you, myself included, to read Oliver’s poem often, to experience the feelings that arise in you as you read it, and to do what you can, in whatever way you can, to treasure this beautiful world while we still have it. Meanwhile the world goes on, Oliver says, but does it anymore?



Dying light.

 

Lately I’ve been reading …

Riches

Other people’s words about … bitter weather

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.

‘Time to Be Slow’
by John O’Donohue

I met with a friend for coffee a couple of days ago — a friend I hadn’t seen for a number of years, someone I thought had moved on in her life; someone I thought, I guess, that I’d never see again. I have come to understand that friendships come and go, and that the friendships that don’t last aren’t any less rich for the shortness of their duration, though they are still worth grieving. And so, though I had missed this friend once we stopped seeing each other, what I mostly felt when I thought about her over the last few years was gratitude for having had her in my life, however short-lasting her friendship may have been.

But last week she reached out to me again, and over coffee we found ourselves taking up where we had left off. And so now I am feeling doubly blessed — for the richness of the friendship we’ve had so far, and for the richness of a friendship that has begun again, for however long.

Time to be slow

We talked about our lives over the last few years, and — of course — about this particular, strange year. And a few hours after we had said good bye, she sent me a link to the poem I have quoted in this post. (The original link she sent me was here.)

Because it is a lovely poem, and because life, like friendship, can have twists and turns that seem utterly bewildering despite our every attempt to make the most of it, I’ve quoted the poem for you here in its entirety. 

As I write this post, we are coming to the end of 2020 — though not, I think, to the end of this strange, troubling time. I hope this poems reminds you of life’s richness, however troubling it may be.

Cage

Other people’s words about … words

Sometimes at the birth and death of a day, the opal sky is no colour we have words for, the gold shading into blue without the intervening green that is halfway between those colours, the fiery warm colours that are not apricot or crimson or gold, the light morphing second by second so that the sky is more shades of blue than you can count as it fades from where the sun is to the far side where other colours are happening. If you look away for a moment you miss a shade for which there will never be a term, and it is transformed into another and another. The names of the colours are sometimes cages containing what doesn’t belong there, and this is often true of language generally, of the words like woman, man, child, adult, safe, strong, free, true, black, white, rich, poor. We need the words, but use them best knowing they are containers forever spilling over and breaking open. Something is always beyond.

From ‘Recollections of My Non-Existence’
by Rebecca Solnit

In the passage I’ve quoted above, Rebecca Solnit gives a beautiful, vivid description of a sunset, a description which then morphs, somehow — in just the same way she describes the colours in the sky morphing — into a discussion about words: how we use them, how they imprison us, and how our understanding of the way that they imprison us might just set us free.

This year, perhaps even more than previous years, we need the words, as Solnit puts it, to ask ourselves questions about what is happening all around us: in the political sphere, the public health sphere, the environmental sphere. And yet, at the same time, all the words we use when we ask ourselves those very questions, when we try to make sense of this year, are nothing more than containers, cages. I can’t think, honestly, of a word that really captures what this year has been like, or what the meaning of this year might be, or how we might learn from this year so that next year isn’t the same (or worse).

I am a person who loves to read and to write, and so it seems natural to me, when I feel wordless, to equate my wordlessness with despair. But sometimes, this year, when I’ve been at my most wordless in the face of everything that is happening in the world, I have been reminded of a line by Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers.

Hope, Dickinson writes, sings the tune without the words. Dickinson’s hope is feathered and wordless; it is an uncaged creature, a creature that is free.

I think of Dickinson’s warm, flitting hope as an antidote to everything else I’ve felt in response to this year. When I read her poem, her words set me free.

Lately I’ve been reading …

With thanks to my mother for the second and third items on this list.

This is my work

Other people’s words about … the sea

Vale, Mary Oliver. I’m not a fan of all of her work — not by a long shot — but I do love the way she observed and wrote about nature: intimately, intricately, affectionately, quietly, humbly.

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I Go Down to the Shore
by Mary Oliver

That lovely voice

Tipping point

Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

by Jane Kenyon

I have never known whether this poem, which I love, is about gratitude or fear, joy or sorrow. Is Kenyon, who experienced terrible bouts of depression throughout her life, describing her gratitude for, and joy in, the small moments of beauty and happiness she has experienced on the day she describes in her poem — the peach, the walk with her dog, the work she loves, the time with her mate?

Or is she describing her fear of losing these moments — of tipping away from happiness, back down into sorrow and depression?

A small thing, this, of beauty.
It might have been otherwise.

It’s a see-saw, this poem, I think. The poet hangs in a kind of precarious balance between one life and the other, without knowing when the hinge will tip her down again, away from the things she loves. It might have been otherwise, she writes at the start, and then, later, sadder and more afraid: it will be otherwise (my emphasis).

Gratitude. Joy. Fear. Sorrow. Grief. Yearning. They’re all there in this one, short poem.

The poetry lover

Other people’s words about … poetry

It rained all day before we went for dinner at Melissa’s. I sat in bed in the morning writing poetry, hitting the return key whenever I wanted.

from ‘Conversations with Friends
by Sally Rooney

I had to smile when I read these words. In the last years of his career, my father, who was a professor of English literature, taught an undergraduate course on poetry. Ever a traditionalist, he taught his students to appreciate the form of the poems they read as well as the words themselves.

Though I’ve never studied English literature at university level, through some mysterious form of osmosis I absorbed some of what my father was teaching his students. Through this process, I now have a passing acquaintance with terms like blank verse and iambic pentameter, and with poetry forms such as sonnets and villanelles. And I’m with my father on this: discipline is a vital ingredient in poetry writing. Where there is no recognisable form or structure to a piece of writing, there is no poem: there are just words on a page, with a few strikes of the return key employed for good measure.

Funnily enough, when I happened to mention to my father that I was writing this post, he alerted me to this piece by David Campbell in The Australian, which my mother had first pointed out to him. In it, Campbell bewails the lack of rhyme, metre and set forms in current Australian poetry. Perhaps these things will become fashionable again one day. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, do you have a favourite poem? What is it? Here are the links to some of mine (including one by David Campbell), each of which transcends the strict form in which they are written in order to produce something more than its parts:

Tea, by Jehanne Dubrow (a sonnet, and the excuse for my tea-themed photo today)
Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, by Dylan Thomas (a villanelle)
On the Birth of a Son, by David Campbell (a sonnet)
The Watch, by Frances Darwin Conford (a strict rhyming system of which Campbell would most surely approve)

When the wall comes down

Other people’s words about … the view

When I was about fourteen or so, I studied a poem in school by David Campbell, called ‘On the Birth of a Son‘. It was a sonnet, and I didn’t know much about sonnets, except that Shakespeare wrote a lot of them. It never occurred to me that a contemporary poet might write one.

This sonnet by David Campbell has stayed in my mind ever since. It remains one of my favourite poems. Here it is, in its entirety:

The day the boy was born, the wall fell down
That flanks our garden. There’s an espaliered pear,
And then the wall I laboured with such care,
Such sweat and foresight, locking stone with stone,
To build. Well, it’s just a wall, but it’s my own,
I built it. Sitting in a garden chair
With flowers against the wall, it’s good to stare
Inwards. But now some freak of wind has blown
and tumbled it across the lawn — a sign
Perhaps. Indeed, when first I saw the boy,
I thought, he’s humble now, but wait a few
Years and we’ll see! — out following a line
Not of our choice at all. And then with joy
I looked beyond the stones and saw the view.

On the face of it, this poem is about becoming a parent — the fears new parents have; the limitations parenthood imposes on their lives; the unexpected, unsettling joys it rewards them with. So it might seem strange that Campbell’s words have always resonated with me, though I have chosen, deliberately, never to become a parent.

But that’s the thing about great poems: they are universal. They manage to strike a chord in different people at different times for different reasons.

For myself, every time I read this poem I am moved by the contrast the poet makes between the act of looking inward — at his safe, pretty, cosy life — and the act of looking up, out, to glimpse a view of the world, and his life, beyond.

The view beyond. Recently, I went on a camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner. We returned to the same spot we always return to, driving down a long, undulating, unpaved road to get there — one that is corrugated and dotted with puddle-holes, dusty with sand stirred up by other passing vehicles, and lined with dense thickets of bush where brown snakes lie coiled, sleeping.

Each day we passed our time the way we always pass our time there. Each day we woke to the same view.

But it is a spectacular view: of open skies, of wide seas, of sprawling cliffs and rolling sand dunes. It is a view of a life beyond the life we normally lead. It is a view that sets me free.

I live a small life: small things give me pleasure. I consider myself, mostly, lucky to be able to live this way. And yet it’s good to escape from time to time: to look up and out and beyond.

And to see, again, the beautiful view.

Notes

  1. You can find a link to this poem here and here.
  2. All the photos in this post were taken at our campsite in Yorke Peninsula in February this year.

Anticipation

Sometimes, when we fear something,
the fear we anticipate experiencing is what makes us most anxious —
rather than the thing itself that we fear.
Psychologists call this ‘anticipatory anxiety’,
which, as technical terms go, is all very well.

But here’s how a man who lived more than a century ago put it:

Some of your hurts you have cured.
The sharpest still you have survived.
But what torments of grief you endured
From evils which never arrived.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-82

I’ve taken to murmuring these words to myself when I feel afraid.
People can speak in psychobabble and jargon —
or they can use timeless words.
Which do you find more healing?

The colour of water

Other people’s words about … the sea

It was my mother who introduced me to one of the most vivid descriptions of the sea I’ve ever read:

The character and life of Sydney are shaped continually and imperceptibly by the fingers of the Harbour, groping across the piers and jetties, clutching deeply into the hills, the water dyed a whole paint-box’s armoury of colour with every breath of air, every shift of light or shade, according to the tide, the clock, the weather and the state of the moon. The water is like silk, like pewter, like blood, like a leopard’s skin, and occasionally merely like water.

Kenneth Slessor

 

 

Note:
Click here to find out more about Kenneth Slessor. He is most famous for Five Bells, a poem which is moving in its own right but which also, if you are sea-obsessed like me, contains some hauntingly beautiful sea-imagery, particularly in its last stanza.