One wild and precious life

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.

The River of Memory

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I have been thinking a lot about memory lately. Considering why some moments remain vivid, while others fade slowly away. There are whole years of my life from which I do not retain a single memory. And this bothers me. 

My mother’s memory dissipated in chunks. The first thing that went was short term memory, which sometimes led to hilarious and frustrating encounters. For example, she would ask the same question, “Do you want onions on your salad?” five times and not remember that she’d asked it. But then she could remember things from forty or fifty years prior perfectly clearly.

Toward the end, my mother didn’t seem to recognize any of us on a consistent basis. During my last visit, she would ask me, “When is Erin coming to see me?” I began to feel like a ghost, but I wonder if my current physicality just didn’t match the daughter she remembered, the blond-haired colt of a girl whose pants were always too short. 

Why do some things hold in our memories when others go? Was it less painful for my mother to think of me as the young girl she could dress in nice clothes and whose hair was consistently combed? Was her memory loss entirely organic or was there something else involved? And why, oh why, can I remember so little from certain periods of my life? What have I put into storage and then thrown away the key?

The first poem of Every Atom includes the lines: “The world we are born into / is not the one that clings to us as we leave.” We change the world by moving through it, by the stories we choose to tell, by the ever-widening ripples of our actions. Sometimes, I go back through old notebooks to remind myself of what my world contained during different times. Sometimes, I go back through old notebooks to remind myself who I was in those worlds. 

Sometimes I don’t recognize any of it. But there it is, in my own handwriting, like a river ebbing and pulsing, continual and irreversible. 

Isn’t it time for poetry to be dead, again?

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Isn’t it about time for the annual “Poetry is Dead” article? Usually the death knell for poetry arises in the month of April, ostensibly “National Poetry Month.” The meager ratcheting up of poetry coverage brings out the hand-wringers and nay-sayers to remind us that “no one reads poetry.”

But what if you’re one of the people who not only (GASP) reads poetry, but in addition to writing it, you BUY it? What if you’re one of those people who reviews it, rates it on Amazon and Good Reads, recommends it? What if, for Pete’s sake, you’re one of those weirdos who actually buys poetry for other people?

What do you think of yourself then? Are you nobody?

Emily Dickinson wrote (sometime before her death in 1886, but dang it if we aren’t still talking about her):


I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

I like to imagine, when my pencil is scratching across the notebook page early in the morning, others who are lifted out of the constant grind of daily decisions by writing. I imagine them with their faces toward the light like mine, with their eyes open and their ears on the words. I see them pressing poetry books into the hands of those who might go under for want of a kindred soul. I know they’re out there, those poetry lovers.

The other day I was in the grocery store, slinking along with my canvas bags and my head full of Li-Young Lee’s poetry (oh yes, his new book The Undressing in the car). Suddenly, a man that I only see about three times each year roared out, “I bought your new book and the poems are making me cry.” He grabbed my arm and swung me toward him. “I love this new work,” he continued in a voice so loud I felt like I might melt before it.

I know that he lost his father last year. Somehow, at least one of the poems that I’d written had been a key for whatever was locked inside him. I could only hope that he felt like I did when a poem fit perfectly inside an empty space I’d been carrying, a space made of feeling alone and now filled with words.

I could only smile and thank him. Thank him for reading my work and telling me so. Thank him for reading poetry. For reminding me that when I am at my desk, I am not truly alone. I think of tne notecard that is stuck beside me on the filing cabinet:

“Writing poetry is a chance to give yourself an authentic life instead of an excuse.”
~Brendan Galvin

And for that, among so many other things, I am grateful.