POETRY SUNDAY: MARY OLIVER
A sermon by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
February 3, 2019
Emerson, the great sage of Concord, Massachusetts, advised readers to hitch their wagons to a star. In Emerson’s mind, humankind is, as the psalmist wrote, but a little lower than angels. We are a part of the nature of things; and nature, for Emerson, was God. Nature is God’s great web where majestic and impossible things like stars and life and death mingle with ants and grasshoppers and tree pollen. Human life is not only divine; we move in God’s divine ordering of things; our task is to pay attention, to grow our self-awareness and our love for life and for our fellow citizens of the world.
Humans have the unique ability to travel the universe with their minds, while their hands till the soil. In Emerson’s mind, all of us are held in God’s great web and our task is to create something worthy of our lives. For Emerson, whether we are wrapped up in a book, or deep in conversation with lovers and friends, or startled by a fox that’s just sprung from its den, we are meant to participate in the world; we are meant to laugh and mourn; we are meant to live and die; and we are meant to wrestle our life from all forms of impoverishment, which means one thing: we are meant to pay attention.
A life worthy of the title is a life filled with what Mary Oliver describes as an unbroken “thought into the world’s brilliant present.” Oliver’s poetry is just that. Throughout her long and unlikely career, she would pen some of this centuries’ most beloved poems. But what gives her poetry its peculiar magic is that when you read her on the page you feel as though you are on a journey with someone who has lived with an unbroken thought into the world’s brilliant present. The image that comes to my mind whenever I read Oliver’s poetry is that of a woman alone on a beach, turning over shells; or that of a woman, dog by her side, kneeling in the wet grass, thumbing an ant hill or a fallen leaf.
Reading through Oliver’s poetry this past week was gift to me, especially in the midst of the worst weather I have ever experienced. In its quiet way, Oliver’s poetry encourages me to look for the grace of things, even when the winds are fifty-five degrees below zero. I thought of all the times I’ve heard her poetry read: in church services, before meals with friends, and at the graveside. At the 2006 General Assembly, in St. Louis, Mary Oliver addressed Unitarian Universalists directly for the first time. UUs hold Mary Oliver in near saint-like esteem, right up there with Rumi, recycling, and skipping church. I do not speak for my fellow UUs. But I suspect that we hold her so dearly because she understands God to be life itself; throughout her poetry she frequently admits that she hasn’t the foggiest idea who or what God is and yet she thanks God for running along her feet in a stream; she thanks God for her aging body; she thanks God for blueberries and ticks and dog breath. I know that in her I find a kindred spirit; and I find her urging to pay attention to be one of the most enduring lessons of my life.
Oliver isn’t a typical poet by any measure. Resisting poetry’s rather patrician reputation, Oliver regarded the life of a poet as blue-collar work. She said in conversation with Krista Tippet that she woke up and went to work just like teachers and plumbers do.
In a fast paced world with near endless distractions; in an era when people change jobs every 4 years; during a time when people move from town to town, never settling down, never putting down roots, Mary Oliver lived and worked right up until the very end of her life in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the tip of Cape Cod, where the Mayflower landed, in 1620.
Similar to Emerson who traded the hubbub of Boston for a slow-paced life in Concord, Oliver managed to unshackle herself from the lure of notoriety and fame. In my mind Oliver was our generation’s Emerson, possessed with a gift to see clearly into the heart of things. For both Emerson and Oliver their self-imposed purpose was to teach us how to live life well; for both of them, the key to a life well lived is, quite simply, to pay attention. Throughout Oliver’s poetry is an I that is amazed by the world’s abundant graces.
Consider her poem “Beans Green and Yellow”:
it is mushrooms
gathered in dampness
under the pines;
I have known the taste of the lamb
full of milk
and spring grass;
it is beans green and yellow
and lettuce and basil
from my friend’s garden –
as though it were an ordinary thing,
we eat the blessed earth.
This poem has nothing to do with trendy, mindfulness-eating programs; it is an admission that life itself enters into our body when we eat. The ancient Israelites, Iroquois, and Anasazi all told of a world blessed by God (or the gods). Food is one of God’s gifts. That is why families pray before meals. We bless our meals because food is one of God’s many graces. The earth and all that’s in it is a blessing; it is by God’s grace that we are alive; it is by God’s grace that death begets life; it is by God’s grace that life begets life.
In Oliver’s meditation on the life and work of Emerson, she argues that his understanding of divinity was first and foremost about humankind’s inner lives. This isn’t to mean that the world doesn’t matter to Emerson. What Oliver means is that the true work of our lives is to be awakened, to clear our minds and behold “the world’s brilliant, perilous present.” This understanding of awakening is captured in Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes”:
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Throughout Oliver’s poetry is a sense that we owe something to this world. This sense of indebtedness is the result of a conviction that life is a gift, that it isn’t the result of some random series of events or particles colliding; the world is a miracle; and life is a miracle. Oliver’s poetry frequently conveys this sense of wonder and amazement.
In “The Summer Day,” perhaps Oliver’s most famous poem, she turns a series of questions that move from God, to the world, to death, and finally, to life:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
In many ways this poem has taken on a life of its own. Oliver believes that her poems, like life, are a gift. Little boys and girls have committed “The Summer Day” to memory and recited it in front of classrooms. It is the final line, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your own wild and precious life?” that is both haunting and beautiful. It is a question all of us have asked in some way or another. It is the thought mothers have when they stare down into their children’s faces as they nurse; it is the thought we have when we wage try to overcome our addictions; it is the thought we have when we gather around to say goodbye in the end.
It is a question that teaches in the asking alone. It teaches in the asking because it says without saying that we are the only ones who can be held responsible for our lives. In Oliver’s essay “Staying Alive,” she describes how she has remained steadfast about one or two things throughout her life; in her own words, she has been loyal to
Loving foxes, and poems, and the blank piece of paper and my own energy—and mostly the shimmering shoulders of the world that shrugs carelessly over the fate of any individual that they may, the better, keep the Niles and the Amazons flowing.
And that I did not give to anyone responsibility for my own life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want with it. Live it. Give it back, someday without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.
For Oliver, life is the greatest gift of all. It is something we have been entrusted with, and it is something we will give back in the end. In her poem “Spring,” Oliver writes, “There is only one question: How to love this world.” The question has nothing to do with our achievements; it doesn’t ask us to embark on wild adventures. The question is: Have I loved this world enough?
To love well demands that we pay attention. People fall in love and make a life together and in the end, they seldom tell of the adventures they took or the mountains they climbed. They tell of how much they miss waking up near the warmth of their lover in the mornings; they miss that they cannot tell them how they felt God on their feet as they waded along the river’s banks; they miss that they weren’t there to be talked into something they were too tired to do; they miss growing old with someone; they miss walking the dog and planting flowers in spring; they miss the touch of love itself.
So much of life’s beauty is there in the midst of the everyday. Oliver’s poetry expresses a devoted bewilderment about God. She begins one of her poems, “I don’t know who God is exactly.” Later, she writes: “If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck. He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke. […] If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics. He’s the forest, He’s the desert. He’s the ice caps, that are dying. He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts […] He is every one of us, potentially.”
For Oliver, if God is a God of love and natural beauty, then that very same God is there in suffering and death as well. Oliver doesn’t let God off the hook; God isn’t a child’s fairy tale. God is love; God is absence and silence; God is life.
In one of Oliver’s rare interviews she said that attention is the beginning of devotion. Our lives are not fully lived if we’re only half awake. At every moment life and death are unfolding all around us. The sun peaks through the grey clouds for just a moment in winter. In its own way it promises us that warmer days are coming. The ice on the river cracks at night and by morning birds are bathing. Somewhere someone who has loved and been loved is breathing their last breath while somewhere else people are holding their breath as a child is welcomed into this strange and yet marvelous world.
In the fourth movement of “At the River Clarion,” Oliver writes:
There was someone I loved who grew old and ill.
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do
except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.
So much of our lives has everything to do with how we respond to life’s ups and downs. In the NICU where I used to work, I remember a mother telling me that her child wasn’t dying but that she was giving her back to God. I remember a man whose wedding I officiated in the hospital’s chapel telling his wife that he intends to spend the rest of his life with her; and then, eight days later when he died, his wife told me that her marriage to him, however brief, were the happiest days of her life.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Oliver never answers this question for us. Instead she urges us to answer this question for ourselves. After all, your life is yours to live. But on this topic, it is only fitting to allow Oliver the final word:
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 you place
in the family of things.
Amen. I love you. And may God bless all of us.