Friday, June 10, 2011
Yesterday I read Dream Work, poems by Mary Oliver, to get back a sense of the poet I had come to love in American Primitive and House of Light. Her more recent book Thirst had left me thirsty.
Dream Work starts with sort of a bad dream, "Dogfish." A dogfish is a kind of shark, and though she sees it as a "relaxed and beautiful thing," smiling, we know right away it is dangerous and that this is not a good smile.
When she says she wants the past to go away, we can figure the dogfish must be like some awful predator in her own past. "Slowly," and now a stanza break, white space, new stanza of a single line, "the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water."
Still, he is only tearing open the water itself. The little prey fish still have a chance:
And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging toward them.
But Oliver's book is from 1986, and she is telling the fish, and readers, to get the hell out of there. That is not a friendly dogfish, as in man's best friend; that smiling thing is a shark.
She is telling herself, too, not to wish for the world to be any easier:
And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
And, about the fish, she shares a bit of encouragement:
if they don't waste time
looking for an easier world,
they can do it.
So this is a thing I can take to heart and also smack myself on the head for, as I'm sure I have wasted some time looking for an easier world. But I did not consider it a waste of time to read the rest of this book in the shade of a tree, and, like Mary Oliver, I never consider it a waste of time to walk out in the beauty of the world, grateful and full of praise.
And I hope it is not a waste of time to ponder, compare, and contrast poems about animals in this book with poems about animals in Thirst. Here, in Dream Work, Oliver seems to avoid the pathetic fallacy or any sentimental oversimplification about what an animal is thinking or doing. In "The Turtle," she goes there, describing the female getting ready to lay her eggs on the sand, but pulls herself back to the reality of instinct, saying "you think
of her patience, her fortitude,
her determination to complete
what she was born to do--
and then you realize a greater thing--
she doesn't consider
what she was born to do.
She's only filled
with an old blind wish.
It isn't even hers but came to her
in the rain or the soft wind,
which is a gate through which her life keeps walking.
OK, it's true that it gets a little pretty after the "old blind wish," but the speaker is understanding and connecting to the turtle, so she's got to see and walk through that gate herself. (And the turtle is not pretty; she's ungainly.) So, in "The Turtle" it's clear that the human speaker is the one doing the human feeling, which is different from claims made in Thirst that certain dogs adore flowers or sunsets, though I think that poem, "Musical Notation: 1," might also simply be making a claim about what humans think about animals, just less artfully. I could be wrong.
Likewise, in "Milkweed," she does not really say milkweed plants were "once young and delicate, also / frightened; also capable / of a certain amount of rough joy" but instead says "it's easy to believe" that about milkweed, once you compare them, as she does, to "a country of dry women."
She ends the poem this characteristic way:
I wish you would walk with me out into the world.
I wish you could see what has to happen, how
each one crackles like a blessing
over its thin children as they rush away.
OK, I am going to walk out into the world now, even if it's only my own back yard. And bless my firstborn, off in the big city, rushing away into adulthood, 21 today!