I gave myself permission to devote myself for the weekend to one book. To be within it while the snow fell and then another front pushed in rain. To keep turning pages, stopping only to feed spruce logs to the fire, as the light filtered in over the mountains through the front windows then shifted to the western windows, then faded behind the bench.
I’d waited impatiently for my copy of Casting Deep Shade by C.D. Wright, and like any acolyte, I felt a little nervous. The book opened like slow steps on creaky wooden stairs, the rumble of words, history, memories, science, photography, art, the body. The sound of rumination, of devotion.
It’s not a book. It’s a cosmology. A treatise on how one thing is attached to every other thing. Every. Other. Thing. A map of a brilliant woman’s brain making connection upon connection, pushing further into the distance. Crossing and re-crossing subjects like neural pathways.
When I closed the covers at the end, folding them like doors to a tabernacle made of wood not gold, I thought if I went outside and pushed my fingers under the soil, I could still feel her in the root hairs, branching branching branching. Without end.
I begin to think the eagles in the tree outside my window are channeling Ursula Le Guin. When I read her essays in Words Are My Matter, the eagles trumpet from their perches in the high cottonwood trees. Trumpet is rather wrong, it is much more like emphatic flute players.
I don’t mean to suggest that Ursula had the thin squeaky voice that, incongruous as it seems, eagles possess. But rather, when I start reading these by turns serious, by turns funny, essays, I have the distinct impression of a voice from above, slightly disappointed and frankly exasperated, pointing out where I have gone astray. A voice from a being who could easily rip my heart out with knife-like talons but who will, for now, try to put me back on the path gently but persistently.
It is so easy to begin to doubt. When our culture spends all of its time telling us that the almighty dollar is the highest good, what then are poets supposed to do? We know each time we set pen to page that monetary gain gathers her silken white robes and heads for the door. So why on earth do we continue? Even those lucky enough to find their words on the printed page know that the audience is small, fickle, and prone to promoting their friends’ work rather than reading broadly.
So often, writers (especially those poets) will reply that they write because they must. As if writers are some evolutionary subset of humanity, driven to create.
But is this true? We want it be, because lord knows in our current culture we would prefer to be counted on the side of the creators rather than the rising flood of destroyers. Yet I wonder how many of us are simply trying to imagine ourselves into a more congenial world.
“Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.
Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it — whoever your people are. They many not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of mind. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.
All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.”
-Ursula Le Guin, “The Operating Instructions”
How many of us who are scribblers began as deep readers? The kind of kid falling into the open pages of a book and finding a world that felt much more like a home than the place where we hung our clothes.
And for now, we are writing our way into another world that contains us fully realized in all our diversity. Not for monetary gain, but to once again say this is the path that creates my world, this the spell that manifests it into being, the scratch of the pencil on the page or rattle of the keyboard. We send those words out into the world in the hopes that for at least one other person they might provide a signpost toward home.
When one of the pair of eagles returns with a seemingly impossibly large stick to bolster the nest, the other calls out for many minutes afterwards for reasons I can only imagine. Together they are building their home. With these words, I am building mine.
Yesterday, the news that Mary Oliver had died rippled outward on social media. My Facebook timeline was filled with Oliver’s poetry, with her beautiful, unadorned face. Like others, I noticed that many of the articles being hastily thrown together seemed to omit the great love of her life, Molly Malone Cook. I also noticed that some of the snark that followed Mary Oliver around in life was continuing after her passing.
Many of the people who I saw mourning Oliver’s passing yesterday were not members of capital P Po-Biz. They were just folks who ran across a handful of Mary’s poems when they needed a lifeline, when they needed a poem that said you are part of this world, your life is precious. These people felt seen by Mary Oliver. They carried her poems on folded-soft paper in their wallets, taped them to their computer monitors, and probably never bought a copy of one of her books.
Mary Oliver had little to do with Po-Biz. I always appreciated that about her. She wanted to be outside in the wild wind more than she wanted to stand in front of adoring crowds. A goodly number of the Po-Biz world looked down their noses at Mary Oliver’s work. Some of that had to do with the fact that she was a woman, a lesbian, a person who didn’t often go to glitzy parties. They said she was soft, sappy, a (god-forbid) nature poet.
Yesterday, I looked at the world a little differently because of Mary Oliver’s passing. Yes, the world felt less observed, as if a spark of love for it had guttered. But also, I thought of all the times I was warned off writing about the natural world. Poems I’ve written about trees have been held up in workshop to ridicule. Even folks in the “eco-poetry” world have suggested that my poems need more of a call to action about the environmental crisis. These are the same folks who dismissed Oliver.
I’m not arguing that everything Mary Oliver wrote was genius. But, I am beginning to connect the dots in the denigration of women (soft, gentle, spiritual, accessible, adjectives used to signify not serious), the destruction and desacralization of the natural world, and some of the poetry that is lauded in our current Po-Biz culture. And I am thinking deeply about the (at this moment) 601 people who shared the graphic I made of Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life” on social media. How deeply we need to be reminded of astonishment, of our duty (dare I say sacred?) to share with each other what will buoy.
Yesterday, the sun was still behind the mountains across Kachemak Bay from where I live when news of Mary Oliver’s death came across the internet. But where it would rise, there was a pillar of red light. As I stood there, unashamedly crying, I wondered if it might just be a beacon. A welcome to the radiance of what comes next for Mary Oliver, a welcome party thrown by the poet Eva Saulitis, who passed three years ago on January 16, and the poet William Stafford, whose birthday was yesterday and who has been gone now 26(!) years. These great spirits who put down words that we get to keep. That we get to remember. That we can love, even if we don’t have an MFA. That we can carry forward.
And that is a mighty fine goal for a poet. Perhaps the only goal.