In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us.
Born in a small town in Ohio, Mary Oliver published her first book of poetry in 1963 at the age of twenty eight. In the ensuing fifty years of her brilliant run she has amassed a beloved canon of books – some poetry and some prose. Oliver has also been recognized with National Book Awards and the the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry among countless other distinctions. Her latest title, Upstream (Penguin Press, 2016), is a breathtaking collection of essays which follow the poet as she contemplates. And, in her eighth decade she still has much to ponder and much life to live. Her points of consideration range from the pleasure and woe of artistic labor, to her love of the natural world, to Shelley and Wordsworth and Emerson, and to the awe of the unknown. From it opening lines, Oliver’s meditations and musings invoke a pause making for a lovely back porch summer escape.
Upstream is crafted gently into five sections, with titles such as; My Friend Walt Whitman, Swoon, Winter Hours, and Provincetown. Each one beckons the reader to stay and reread and pull quotes – many of her teachings calibrated especially for those engaged in creative pursuits. It rambles naturally and sports the feel of a long saunter with a wise sage. I found myself hanging on the “tour guide’s” every observation. While much terrain is covered in the pages of Upstream, the refrain woven throughout is this notion of positioning oneself “upstream” as Oliver does herself. She urges readers to abandon certainty in favor of the the mystery, the unknown – straight towards the source. “In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us.”
As has long been my custom when enjoying Oliver’s writings of any sort, a notepad is my steady companion. Her lessons never fail to quietly shift my thought patterning and quench a thirst I was not conscious existed. Such was the case with these lines from Upstream which felt particularly timely, “The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list.”
In my mind, the arguers never stop –
the skeptic and the amazed-
the general and the particular, in their
Then the robin sings.
Then the bulb of the lily becomes the stalk,
the stalk opens into a handkerchief of white light.
The above excerpt taken from Mary Oliver’s poem entitled Riprap (The Leaf and The Cloud, DaCapo Press 1984) – lines made possible through her signature travels, like a child, going towards the source, always. It’s an approach well worth recalling (and snatching back) as summer passes through and we welcome back leisure and that chance to (again) lose ourself in the mystery.