Thoughts on Mary Oliver

“And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe…” – Mary Oliver, Upstream

upstream

 

I’m a big fan of Mary Oliver’s writing. She makes connections, or rather shows connections, that are not obvious on the surface. Her descriptions of nature do more than make you want to re-read the passage. They make you want to go see the world for yourself and then re-read the passage. Her poems are bereft of sentimentality, but full of mindful observation. And I can guarantee there’s some sweat behind those words.

Here’s the thing about writing poetry — it takes work. A surprising number of people don’t seem to know this. I’ve witnessed more than once an acquaintance who, having read only a handful of poems in a lifetime, stumbles upon one of Oliver’s more moving pieces of verse (often Wild Geese) and decides “I, too, will be a poet.” Which is wonderful. It’s wonderful when a writer inspires others to write. But some of these folks harbor the delusion that all it takes to become another Mary Oliver is a walk in the woods, followed by fifteen minutes with a pen, scribbling the first thoughts that come to mind.

I’m not saying it’s a waste of time if you want to do this. It can be a great centering activity and increase your awareness of the world. I am saying not to expect to produce a Great Poem, one that will be anthologized and inspire future generations, without toil. Don’t expect to produce good writing without study, without putting in many hours reading your genre (whether it’s poetry or science fiction or a melding of the two.)

My hope is that everyone with a desire to “write like Mary Oliver” will read her book, Upstream. Notice the phrase “meticulous effort” in the quote above? In Upstream, she speaks a lot about the value of work. She also shares many thoughts about writers who have influenced her – Whitman, Poe, Emerson, Wordsworth. She has read them thoroughly, delving into their techniques and examining the contexts of their lives. She brings the same keen gaze to literature that she does to trees and geese and dogs, looking deeply into the nature of the writing and how it fits into the web of all things.

The woman has put a lot of effort into producing sets of words that stir the souls of her readers. Once we realize this, we can appreciate her even more.

 

 

Poem:Seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds

Like holiday poetry? Here’s one I wrote a few years ago for Halloween.

 

Seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at Age Seven

My mom was there but not — asleep on the couch,
head lolled back, mouth open wide
enough for a parakeet to fly in
had ours not died already.
My dad was gone.

Nobody knew my brother and I
were getting away with something.
Late night TV. The Birds.
We dared each other to watch.

Normally I’d try lifting my mom’s
lower jaw into place once or twice
of an evening; I worried
about moths and things.
But this night I wouldn’t risk waking her.

Later I wished I had,
even months later, an eon of regret in childhood –
when I’d look up from my coloring in the afternoon
having heard a flutter near the window
knowing sharp beaks could slash right through the screen,
when I’d run flat out the three blocks to school
books held over my head as a shield,
and especially when the crows gathered at dusk,
raucous and shifting and crowding, and then
more especially when they settled down,
waiting.

 

(This originally appeared in Well Versed.)

RIP Glenn Frey, Hotel California Alt Lyrics

I’m increasingly concerned for performing artists in their sixties. First Lemmy, then Natalie Cole, followed by David Bowie and Alan Rickman. And today’s announcement of the passing of the Eagles’ Glenn Frey.

Frey holds a special place in my life, having composed “Hotel California.” Way back in the mists of prehistory, when Mr. Nomadic Noesis and I were only dating and not yet married, I often found myself driving home from his house late at night with my car radio blasting to keep me awake. It tended to be around the same time and, not saying whoever programmed the radio station was lazy or anything, but I could pretty much count on hearing the same songs. Almost without fail, “Hotel California” finished up shortly before I pulled into my driveway.

A few years ago on our wedding anniversary, I wrote a poem about this. Here it is:

Driving to the Hotel California

On a dark urban highway, Eagles on the radio.
I thought the lyricist smelled the lieges, since I’d
never heard of colitas and the story made no sense
anyway. The heavy head, though – that part
I understood, for the evening
was not young when I left his doorway.
I had a long drive home
and I was thinking to myself,
“They play this same old song every night
while my headlights light up the orange barrels
lining this construction corridor.”
And I knew the next day I would still hear them sing

“Welcome to the Hotel California”
Every single place
I went all day long
in my head — the Hotel California.
No matter what I did, it’d be there.

My mind was definitely stuck on the song again again
but every time I thought of it I thought too of the man I’d seen –
how we danced and we courted on those hot summer nights.
The song makes me remember; I’ll never forget.

So I called up the station
“Please play me my song,”
They said “We haven’t had that request since I don’t know when.”
Still I can hear those voices sing to this day,
wake up in the middle of the night,
next to me he breathes.

The rhythm is Hotel California
I look at his sleeping face
recall driving from his place
to the strains of Hotel California.
What a nice surprise, our love’s still alive.

Water stains on the ceiling
Legos strewn underfoot.
Sometimes feel like a prisoner to home repair and clutter
and in the middle of it all
I cook the evening feast,
try to find something everyone will like
something they all will eat.
Then I stop and remember
those times leaving his door
how I never wanted to go back
to the place I lived alone.
Legos will get picked up
and ceiling fixed eventually.
This is the life I’ve chosen
and I don’t want to leave.

 

Politically Correct: Musings and a Poem

Several years ago I wrote a poem about a phrase I kept hearing: politically correct. Or political correctness. Or PC. It was used to shut people up, like duct tape over the mouth. Espouse a position that makes someone else feel guilty or uncomfortable? You were likely to hear that you were “just being PC.”

For a while, the term faded away, at least in discourse to which I was privy. Now it’s come roaring back. All over the place, I hear people proudly proclaim “I’m not politically correct.” The implication being, I suppose, that anyone who has a different opinion on the issue at hand can’t really be sincere. The implication being: “Deep down, you know I’m right. It’s simply inconvenient for you to admit it.”

To me, answering someone’s challenge or question or opinion with a dismissive charge of political correctness is the laziest kind of ad hominem attack. Instead of considering the issue, you call them a name and are done with it. Uttering the phrase “politically correct” absolves you of the need to listen or reason or self-examine. It’s right up there with the antiquated practice of calling women hysterical every time they challenged the status quo.

Since the term is back in vogue, my poem seems timely once again. I had fun playing around with it. I hope you have fun reading it.

Parity Considerations

Politically correct?
Is the accusation a
pertinent criticism
or just a
peevish complaint?
Does it matter whether my actions
are a result of
passive compromise
or of a truly
principled cause?
Could it be that
persistent charges
of PC are no more than
panicked counterattacks
against anyone refusing to fit a
particular conformity?
Should I lay aside my
personal convictions
out of fear that some
piously corrupt
person might
possibly call
me names?
If someone else can
purchase compliance
from me with
pretentiously contrived
allegations of PC
does that make me
politically correct
or
politically incorrect?
Pardon my confusion,
but if you are
preoccupied constantly
with whether I’m “just being PC,”
whom does this say more about,
you or me?
Please clarify.

 

Tree Envy – Poem

Leaf

Tree Envy

Instead of dreary gray strands
threading subtly widening paths
around my head,
I want blazing red
for my autumn color,
interspersed with patches of
can’t-peel-your-eyes away yellow
and clusters
of an orange so perfectly sun-toasted
it holds its own as an independent hue,
not remotely a blend of the other two.
I want the colors to burst
out all at once,
so that people I meet
will feel a catch of breath
at the splendor,
the glorious culmination of my maturity.

Looking My Age

Since we’re all pondering the passing of time tonight, here’s a poem I wrote about aging, followed by some musings.

**

The Grottos of My Face

Lines I expected, around
the eyes and mouth, a deepening, settling
in of my features. This is how I aged
in my mind, at twenty, when I thought of aging
which wasn’t often, but enough
so that the image held fast, is there still
decades later, when I hit the snooze
each morning, until the second alarm
propels me through the shower
to the mirror, comb in hand. The third alarm
is the surprise that meets me there
new every day: the grottos
of my face, the shifting of the landscape.
No steady etching, as from
the river time is supposed
to be, according to the poets I’ve read.
Now I begin to see that age
is not a settling but an upheaval
unpredictable,  seismic.

**

2000px-aztec_calendar-svg

For most of my adult life, my appearance has been deceiving. I’ve looked younger than my actual age. Once, when I was in my early twenties, I was checking out books about writing from the library and the lady behind the desk asked “Are you hoping to be a writer when you grow up?” Umm.

I got ID-checked for 21-and-over activities right up to about age 40. But after age 45 or so, it the years started catching up with me and it seemed I could tell a difference in the mirror from one day to the next. I remember the morning I woke up with jowls. It was like having one of those tricky balloon mortgages where people float along complacent for years and years with their manageable payments, until suddenly one day – boom – they owe tens of thousands of dollars all at once.

I’m 51 years old now and I look it. I have a couple of gray streaks in my hair. I don’t plan to dye it, as I know myself too well to entertain the idea I’d ever keep up with it. Besides, I like gray hair, and the shade of gray I’m getting goes well with my blue eyes. I have creases in my face and the newest development is turkey neck.

I tell myself I’m okay with it. There’s nothing wrong with looking my age or being my age. As Sarah Silverman put it, about people mocking her for being “old”:  “I feel like your joke is that I’m still alive. My crime is not dying.”

For the most part, I don’t think about it much. I’d be lying if I said I feel like I have as much energy as I did fifteen years ago. Yet, I have hung drywall in the not-too-distant past. I’m not exactly decrepit. Also, I haven’t even gone through menopause. That’s right — my husband and I still have to be watchful not to pull the old Abraham and Sarah routine and produce an infant in our twilight years.

There are times I let it bother me, and those times generally hang upon the words of someone else. Those times I worry that I look even older than my age. (Though, what would be wrong with that?) Then I wonder if it’s because we have constructed such an artificial idea of what aging looks like in our society. Do I really look older than 51, or is it that people have no concept of what an undyed, undisguised, unreconstructed 51-year-old looks like?

You know how to make a woman feel old and feel bad about it? Patronizingly call her “young lady.” This happened to me twice recently. The first time it was a waiter, and he looked to be quite a bit younger than I, so I’m going to forgive him and allow that he has time to learn the error of his ways.

The second instance was a grocery store clerk, who appeared to me to be around ten years my senior. He not only greeted me with a hearty “How are you today, Young Lady?” (emphasis not mine), but he also instructed the bagger not to fill my bags too full because they would hard for me to lift and asked if I had anyone at home to help me unload them. Good grief. I know I was short on sleep that day, but did I really appear a full 100 years older than my actual age? I overruled him on the bagging, telling the woman she could fill them pretty full because my canvas totes are sturdy. Then I answered his question, “No everyone else is at work or school right now, but I’ve recently been hanging drywall, so I think I can handle a few sacks of groceries.” Either I put him in his place or he assumed my visions of hanging drywall were a product of my senile mind.

I nearly turned around as I was pushing my cart away. It occurred to me to tell him, “Those tampons I just bought? They’re for me. I still ovulate.” I stopped myself, though.

As a girl, I always responded to assumptions about what girls couldn’t or shouldn’t do with a “challenge accepted” attitude. This girl climbed trees higher than the boys did. This girl loved math classes and not so much home economics. This girl was simply herself, whether or not it fit the social narrative or was considered feminine. I want to hold onto her when it comes to age. I want be the woman in her fifties who is okay with being in her fifties. Instead of trying to pass for younger, I want fifty and then sixty and seventy, and beyond to be acceptable and not narrowly defined.

If I ever do dye my hair, I’m pretty sure it will be purple.

 

Poem: Seeds

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Here in the middle of the U.S., we just passed the frost date. So it’s time to plant. Here’s a seasonally-inspired poem I wrote:

Seeds

“Here it is,
The start of my first garden,”
she tells him.
Two dozen flat seeds
the color of milk, round with a point,
pour from a paper packet.

He wants to know what else she plans to plant
other than bell peppers.

She hasn’t decided yet,
but thinks it will be wonderful
to raise her own food.
She’ll cook more from scratch,
maybe even learn to can.
Gardening is great exercise;
she knows she’ll lose weight.
She hopes to figure out that sewing machine
she picked up at a garage sale
to make her own dresses.
Who knows?
She may need maternity clothes soon.
Healthier living should improve their chances.
At least she thinks so.
She wants to know what he thinks.

He thinks it seems like a lot to expect
from one little handful of seeds –
to grow a whole new life.

**

This poem originally appeared in “Mid-America Poetry Review.”