Vanishing into something better
Mary Oliver showed us how to look at what’s around us.
On a calm morning, as I kayaked up an arm of Lake Waikaremōana for the story in this issue of the magazine, I kept finding curls of swan down resting like wood shavings on the lake surface. They brought to mind a favourite poem by the beloved United States poet Mary Oliver, who died in January, aged 83. In the poem, Oliver is doing what she spent a lifetime doing—attending to the natural world. On this occasion, she watches swans soar overhead, skimming the dunes and trees along her daily walk.
“How could I help but adore them?” she asks, then adds: “How could I help but wish that one of them might drop a white feather that I should have something in my hand to tell me that they were real?”
I know that impulse—the desire to have some souvenir of the transfiguring moment, the grace that brushes us with its wing in passing. This is not possible, writes Oliver. It is foolish. “What we love, shapely and pure, is not to be held, but to be believed in,” she writes, as the swans vanish “into the unreachable distance”.
Love for the living world shaped Oliver’s life. Whether she was writing about oaks or otters, geese or green beans, whether about finches bathing in a puddle or mussels clinging to the sea rocks of Provincetown, Massachusetts—her home for more than 50 years—her affectionate regard cast a glow around these ordinary things, restoring to them the luminous worth that a careless mind misses. And being restored herself in the process.
“I was a bride married to amazement,” she writes. “I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
It was this love, this understanding of nature’s transformative power, that propelled her to spread a blanket in the forest, to sleep with “nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts”, and to report that “by morning I had vanished at least a dozen times into something better”.
The desire to vanish, to become lost again, “comes over me like a vapor”, she writes in Upstream, her 2016 book of essays. The title is from an incident in Oliver’s childhood. Her parents had instructed her to walk downstream to get to a certain place. Perversely, Oliver turned upstream. As with Frost’s road less travelled by, that decision made all the difference.
Upstream is where Oliver chose to walk. Upstream of conventional wisdom and socially acceptable pursuits, away from the “heavy coats” of adult responsibility.
“Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity,” she writes. “May I stay forever in the stream.”
That is exactly what she did, feeling its strong current, plumbing its depths, thrilling to its babble and roar.
“Attention is the beginning of devotion,” she writes, and she was the epitome of both. Her work, she says, consists of “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished”.
Hers is poetry of intimacy and connection, in the tradition of Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins and Thoreau—to all of whom she has been compared. In common with those writers, little in the living world lay outside the range of her interest and notice. As Thoreau discovered on Mount Ktaadn, what matters is contact. Contact!
She made sure she gave the world every chance to make contact with her. Why else did she take those daily walks through forests and along seashores year on year? Who can ever predict where and when mystery will descend, turning water into wine?
“One must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all our conscious discipline, will come where they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings,” she writes.
Dawn was her special time. She wanted always to be present at “the opening of the door of day”, writing that “no one who loves dawn, and is abroad to see it, could be a stranger to me”. Once, in pine woods between darkness and first light, Oliver was sitting on the ground when two deer saw her, decided she was without harm, and walked towards her. One leaned forward and nuzzled her hand.
“What can my life bring me that could exceed that brief moment?” she asks. Indeed, in 20 years of walking in the same woods every day, it never happened again.
“Such gifts, bestowed, can’t be repeated,” she writes. Then she adds: “If you want to talk about this, come to visit. I live in the house near the corner, which I have named Gratitude.”
What has made Oliver’s poems therapeutic for so many of her readers is the constant, gentle segue from the delight of the world’s manifestations, granted in precious moments of sight and sound, to deeper currents of meaning.
She never disparaged or dismissed the healing gifts of nature. With deep charity, she invites us to share her vulnerability and hope:
What, in the earth world,
is there not to be amazed by
and to be steadied by
and to cherish?
Oh, my dear heart,
my own dear heart,
full of hesitations,
questions, choice of directions,
look at the world.