A Square-Peg People Book Review
What Do We Know
by Mary Oliver
I keep this book - and other Mary Oliver collections - on my nightstand (which is a bookcase!) - so I can grab it often. How I wish I could just hand it to you. Or sit next to you and read it aloud - every page. But that won't work - and I'm pretty sure that copyright laws prohibit my copying out whole poem and prose pieces for you.
Recently I sat in a Quaker Meeting - picking up What Do We Know occasionally to guide my meditations. I could have exploded each time I finished reading one of the pieces for feelings of joy and gratitude, connection with everything.
It's the perfect book for a Quaker Meeting - Mary Oliver's work revels in the simplicity that Quakers hold dear.
I am drawn to the themes of gratitude, real joy (as opposed to the superficial happiness connected to money or things), love of nature, lessons from nature and nature's creatures, stories of connection and glory in the small things.
She shows us the macrocosm in the microcosm. Every little thing points to the bigger picture - to truth.
Mary Oliver's work touches me deeply. And when I've shared her poems - even with people who considered themselves die-hard poetry haters - there has always been a connection - a sense of wonder passed on. Some of her poems have brought tears to my eyes (of understanding - or gratitude - or that feeling of being truly seen and understood) - one caused me to guffaw!
I was reading the poems, enjoying a sense of connection and gratitude, when I came upon the prose poem "Black Snake":
there neatly. He has cousins who have teeth that
spring up and down and are full of the sap of death,
but what of that, so have we all...
The mention of Black snake's "full of the sap of death" cousins jumped into my mellowness so suddenly that I really did rock with laughter! Yea for truth-telling, Mary!!
In a poem called "On Losing a Home" you can hear her anger:
how to love, don't tell us
how to grieve, or what
to grieve for, or how loss
shouldn't sit down like a gray
bundle of dust in the deepest
pockets of energy, don't laugh at our belief
that money isn't
everything, don't tell us
how to behave in
anger, in longing, in loss, in home-
sickness, don't tell us,
"One Hundred White-sided Dolphins on a Summer Day" is one that always pulls me toward praise: (from the 3rd section of the poem)
pure, sudden, steep, sharp, painful
I don't know--either
or the pale, bearable hand
This particular poem reminds me of an essay by Frederick Buechner (probably my favorite writer, and definitely one who I run to for inspiration and encouragement) entitled "The Great Dance", in The Longing for Home. In this essay, Buechner speaks of his tearful reaction to seeing killer whales at Sea World:
"...with a delight only matched by what seemed the delight of the performing whales, it was as if the whole creation--men and women and beasts and sun and water and earth and sky and, for all I know, God himself--was caught up in one great, jubilant dance of unimaginable beauty...We shed tears because we had caught a glimpse of the Peaceable Kingdom, and it had almost broken our hearts."
Buechner speaks of finding that his reaction is a common one. He reasons out what these feelings express:
"The world does bad things to us all, and we do bad things to the world and to each other and maybe most of all to ourselves, but in that dazzle of bright water as the glittering whales hurled themselves into the sun, I believe what we saw was that joy is what we belong to. Joy is home, and I believe the tears that came to our eyes were more than anything else homesick tears."
Mary Oliver seems to give us the same exhortation: Even though it can be (it IS) awful rough sometimes in this world - we're made for JOY - keep your eyes open and you'll see! I love this message - I love that Mary Oliver never hides the truth that there ARE hard times - and also doesn't seem to forget the rock bottom grounding of JOY!
What Do We Know has pieces titled with nature-names, including: "The Hummingbird", "Raven with Crows", "The Roses", "Clam", "Blue Iris", "Mink".
The poems speak of nature, of it's comings and goings - activities and restings; but they also speak of US - of our seeking, our desires, our loves - and where we find joy.
While never negating the rougher experiences we all have, Mary Oliver lifts life high - helps us open our eyes to our connection to nature, to each other, to ourselves - and rolls it up in gratitude.
Even if you've never been a poetry fan, Mary Oliver's work will touch your heart - reading her poems is not an intellectual exercise - it's a surrendering - an invitation to seeing things with new eyes.
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