Dispatches | September 28, 2010
Coming Back to Mary Oliver's Twelve Moons
I think it must have been Mary Oliver’s Twelve Moons that I picked up from the quarter bin in the coffee shop the day I came back to writing poetry. I must have been working on a short story, which had come to mean going through the motions, pecking half-heartedly at the old-for-2000 ten-pound Toshiba I’d bought off my roommate for $75. More than the story, the practice, for me, had stagnated. I was looking for a distraction.
The book was small, non-threatening. I don’t think I read more than a handful of poems. It wasn’t so much that I was moved by Oliver’s notable music and imagery; what I distinctly remember feeling is, I can do this.
I had no idea who Mary Oliver was. My knowledge of fiction writers, whose world I wanted to enter, was only slightly less scant than my knowledge of poets. I was twenty-four, what could generously be called an administrative assistant, a Classics graduate with vague notions of how translating Greek and Latin made me a better writer. I had started taking fiction workshops my senior year, initially to work on an idea for a “novel.” Two years after graduating and two rounds of fiction MFA rejections, my mother dead a year, I was undoubtedly hung-over. It must have been a Sunday. I was probably waiting for the bathroom or a refill or the internet PC. And then Mary Oliver’s itching at my ear: “I thought the earth / remembered me, she / took me back so tenderly…”
Forget that I had always written poetry, that it was the poetry that had kept me interested in Classics. My best friend in college; the guy who always won the undergraduate poetry awards—they wrote what I thought was real poetry: highly wrought, compressed, suggestive and (to me, anyway) impenetrable genius code, uttered so confidently that I was embarrassed to admit confusion, even, I think, to myself. My imitations were most clearly travesties.
What a relief, then, to get it suddenly, when I wasn’t looking, without even having to try, and this from a Pulitzer Prize winner. The way I remember it, I flipped through, recognizing here, and here again, yes, and there, and there that I could do it, that I knew how. I just hadn’t realized I was allowed to say it, that the expectations were anything less than impossible, like spending hours cleaning my room as a kid, only to look in my sibling’s bedrooms and realize I’d been doing all this unnecessary work.
Not that Twelve Moons is half-assed. Is it? That book begins my finding-my-calling narrative: the lyric reclaimed, the MFA, starting to publish, finding my voice, finding a way to write about my mother, the PhD, the consistent delight of making, the sense of purpose.
Returning to Twelve Moons now, I know a little about Mary Oliver. I’ve read several of her other books, I know what I’m supposed to say, what I’ve said. She’s attractive to beginning writers and simpletons, she was onto something in those early poems, but now she’s a bad imitation of herself (despite apparent evidence to the contrary, i.e. her steadily prominent publications).
This go-round, I appreciate again how easy these poems are to read, and not just from a reader’s standpoint, but from a practicing poet’s. Writing in a simple way about familiar things, even in familiar terms (and how familiar it seemed in ’79 is worth asking) still doesn’t get the job done of making words lift off the page. It’s craft, a harmony of expression and subject, that does that in Twelve Moons. I’ve come to see that a lot of the flak your Mary Olivers and Billy Collinses and Ted Koosers get is the result of the faulty assumption that what looks easy is. The immediate recognition I felt and still feel is her aim. She wants us to feel like we can do it, if we’ll just let ourselves; that we’re there with her, feeling “the perfection, the rising, the happiness.”
I am less than amazed by her overarching theme of “Entering the Kingdom” of nature. Certainly it would be harder now—harder because of her—to get away with so many winds and moons and bones and fire and dreams, with personifying death. The ladder she does less in her next book, her biggest hit, American Primitive. Here, it seems, she hasn’t quite purged (or subsumed) the Whitman O: “…O holy / Protein, o hallowed lime, / O precious clay!”—or the Bard’s certain variety of hopeful inclusion, bending even grammar: “I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances.”
A similar optimism, but less expected and mystical, animates the one moment in Twelve Moons where I’m truly surprised. Up to the penultimate stanza, the speaker in “The Black Snake” can’t keep herself from dragging around the intractable reality of the word “death,” chained to the image of the run-over snake—until she uncovers “a brighter fire, which the bones / have always preferred.” Not new terms, by any means, but what’s she getting at? “It is the story of endless good fortune. / It says to oblivion: not me! / It is the light at the center of every cell. / It is what sent the snake…through the green leaves before / he came to the road.” Unlike the other epiphanies, this notion isn’t passive; it doesn’t long to easefully disappear into the loam. Here I like the speaker’s active celebration of what amounts to a flaw, a lie, but which is nevertheless the truest thing we know.
So I’ve come back around to Twelve Moons, but not all the way. I still prefer, by way of comparison, the gristle and grit, the unforgiving cruelty and suffering embodied in the muscular, explosive nature lyrics of Ted Hughes or Galway Kinnell. It’s the difference, I guess, between Oliver, in “Hunter’s Moon—Eating the Bear,” calling the beast “Good Friend” and “holding a piece of [his] life on a knife-tip,” vs. Kinnell, in “The Bear,” saying, “…I bend down…at a turd sopped in blood… and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down, / and rise / and go on running.”
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