Recently we lost two beloved poets, Mary Oliver, and W.S. Merwin. Both of these writers devoted their craft to the natural world and both have impacted me immensely. Over the next month - and - a - half, I will be sharing a poem each week from one of these recent ancestors. Poems will be selected from across the wide breadth of their lives so this will be unique in that we will not be reading from a specific book(s). The ask is to pick a book(s) from each of them and dive into their work. We will spend the July meet-up reading poems to each other and discussing the role of poetry in actively loving this earth.
Blue Iris - Mary Oliver
I’ve been finding respite in poetry these last days. This poem especially has been reminding me to breathe. The news is unrelenting. We must be creative in how we find pause and tend to our broken hearts. Who here has experienced “distillation of blue iris?” Who here is more than their ability to produce?
Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?
Can’t fly, can’t run, and see how slowly I walk.
Well, I think, I can read books.
“What’s that you’re doing?”
the green-headed fly shouts as it buzzes past.
I close the book.
Well, I can write down words, like these, softly.
“What’s that you’re doing?” Whispers the wind, pausing in a heap just outside the window.
Give me a little time, I say back to its staring, silver face.
It doesn’t happen all of a sudden, you know.
“Doesn’t it?” Says the wind, and breaks open, releasing
Distillation of blue iris.
And my heart panics not to be, as I long to be,
The empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.
In Blackwater Woods - Mary Oliver
“In Blackwater Woods” was first read aloud to me in the early Fall of 2016. I was using poetry as daily sustenance during this period of my life. I was in the midst of multiple education programs while going through a major breakup which culminated in me losing my home. Some days I felt strong, some days I felt weak. I read this poem aloud to myself every single day for several months. Because I consciously do not use substances to cope with my emotions this poem became a grounding reprieve of instructional support on the darkest days. This poem taught me that even when I am in pain, I can still love, I can still hold and that I can in fact let go. What does “In Blackwater Woods” bring up for you?
In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
The Trees - Mary Oliver
I can not get enough of the last lines of this poem, “The trees, just holding on to the old, holy ways.”
Do you think of them as decoration?
Here are maples, flashing.
And here are the oaks, holding on all winter
to their dry leaves.
And here are the pines, that will never fail,
until death, the instruction to be green.
And here are the willows, the first
to pronounce a new year.
May I invite you to revise your thoughts about them?
Oh, Lord, how we are all for invention and
But I think
it would do us good if we could think about
these brothers and sisters, quietly and deeply.
The trees, the trees, just holding on
to the old, holy ways.
My Hand - W.S. Merwin
See how the past is not finished
here in the present
it is awake the whole time
it is my hand now but not what I held
it is not my hand but what I held
it is what I remember
but it never seems quite the same
no one else remembers it
a house long gone into air
the flutter of tires over a brick road
cool light in a vanished bedroom
the flash of the oriole
between one life and another
the river a child watched
⁃W.S. Merwin, The Shadow of Sirius
In honor of the feeling I get when I think of the stream I watched as a child. Here I am jumping over it when I still though of myself as mostly child and only part womxn. How is the past still awake for you?
Rain Light - W.S. Merwin
This image from Waiakoa Wildflowers inspired this poem share from W.S. Merwin. As always I am in awe of the Byrd family and all beings they grow and tend to because somehow their hands always make things bloom in the deepest way.
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning — W.S. Merwin, from his Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Shadow of Sirius
Recognitions - W.S. Merwin
a wave and an ash tree were sisters
they had been separated since they were children
but they went on believing in each other
though each was sure that the other must be lost
they cherished traits of themselves that they thought of
as family resemblances features they held in common
the sheen of the wave fluttered in remembrance
of the underside of the leaves in the ash tree
in summer air and the limbs of the ash tree
recalled the wave as the breeze lifted it
and they wrote to each other every day
without knowing where to send the letters
some of which have come to light only now
revealing in their old but familiar language
a view of the world we could not have guessed at
but that we always wanted to believe
What is your old & familiar language?
I love this poem. It makes my heart ache for all of the ways that we are still guessing at understanding this living earth and our own complex relationships to each other and ourselves. As someone who holds multiple identities, cultures and places there is a part of me that is forever remembering who and what is not present. Today while looking out onto the hills with their long dried grasses that wave through the winds I was recalling the patterns of waves and tides moving through the ocean. This is one way that I visit home for a moment, this is one version of my “old but familiar language”.
Image: Philip Stoll