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Living with one’s eyes open

· Mary Oliver’s poetry ·

The author of clear and focused poetry that draws inspiration from the world of nature observed in long and daily rambles through the woods of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Mary Oliver is one of the most read and best loved poets in the United States.

Her writing is inseparably bound to an observation of nature which begins every day at five o’clock in the morning, the time when Mary Oliver wakes up to begin her usual walk in the woods, rigorously armed with a notebook. These walks are now famous among the inhabitants of Provincetown, for years been accustomed to seeing the writer wandering about then stopping and looking, motionless, focusing on some detail that has stirred her interest and beginning to jot down notes on it. Her poetry indeed starts from an attitude of extraordinary attention to the outside world, a direction of the gaze several times reaffirmed and encouraged by what is within her.

The greatest tension present in her poetry seems to be what leads us to the dialectic confrontation between the poetic and lyrical “I” on the one hand, and the more objective dimension of existence on the other. The resolution of this dialectic is found in a sort of interiority, open and inclusive with regard to the world, which enters the poem with overwhelming force. This happens thanks to a visual power that turns Mary Oliver’s gaze not to inner reactions but rather to what is happening before her eyes: life is stared at intensely or contemplated with breadth in the search for a meaning, an openness, a mystery, or in expectation of a grace.

Her creative intuition is thus born by virtue of an external vision, without her own inner states being projected on to reality: her gaze alights on the world, restoring to it a glorious and peace-bearing vision, perceiving, starting with the concrete, the echo of the beginning, the call of Creation: “Believing isn’t always easy. / But this much I have learned – / if not enough else – / to live with my eyes open”, she writes in In the Storm.

Having interpreted the images seen or the sounds heard, the writer’s poems are directly addressed to the reader: the call is to put oneself back into play, to see the whole of one’s life again, to recover authenticity and immediacy, abandoning false directions and erroneous objectives. It is a poetry that questions, but above all that questions without fearing to indicate a response and a true and proper conduct, in order to reach a condition of life that is harmonious and at peace because it is put back again into that context of nature of which human beings are part and from which they have mistakenly strayed.

Mary Oliver’s poetry is simple, immediate, polished like a river pebble, but able to unfold ways of seeing and to lead the reader to intense interior discoveries. Her gaze, attentive to the natural world, finds in it a unique beauty which her poems render unforgettable. Indeed, the end of the poem itself creates a relationship of affection with reality: “My work is to love the world” she writes in the Messaggero: a world made up of sunflowers, hummingbirds and blue plums. Soul and landscape correspond, and writing poetry means to praise in the Franciscan sense: Mary Oliver’s key word is “gratitude”. In the mystery of existence there is an invincible grace, while visions of reality and imagination blend and unfold on to a pause for meditation on life.

Why I Wake Early is a poem that can immediately introduce one to what may be the distinctive characteristic of Mary Oliver’s poetry: the celebration of the world. A world with its natural elements, in this case the sun, observed and interpreted as a magnificent vital power, as a creative energy that works for a continual renewal, for a ceaseless and joyous process of ongoing creation: “Hello, sun in my face, / Hello, you who make the morning / and spread it over the fields / and into the faces of the tulips / and the nodding morning glories”. It is a world for which it is worth rising early and whose extraordinary nature attracts, astonishes, makes happy, consoles; to the point that the poet’s greeting bursts forth with delight and gratitude

The simplicity of the proposition of this poem lies precisely in the fact that it renders powerful its capacity for unfolding a vision, interwoven with grace, of a world seen as endlessly “fresh and precious”: a vision that can only happen when human beings, paying attention to the nature that surrounds them, learn from this and recognize themselves as creatures, brothers or sisters. This is a poem with a profound spirituality which gives a voice to a harmonized soul, through contact with nature, on the wavelength of transcendence.

The power of the world is thus a vital energy that inexorably attracts the I to itself, detaching it from the temptation of a solipsistic inner withdrawal. It is precisely the wonder felt with regard to nature observed attentively which lights the fuse of creativity and becomes an insuppressible generative tension which finds an outlet in artistic words.

It is a gratitude that takes shape in praise, in the celebration of what is humble, small and ordinary, but which, if observed from the correct angle reveals it to belong to a greater reality, to be a bearer of meaning. The natural world proves capable of “perfect prayer”, as in the case of the poem called The Lily in which this flower whispers imperceptible words in a secret language that the poet tries to hear but in vain, even though there is no wind. Maybe, Mary Oliver meditates, the language of the lily is in reality the simple “standing” of the flower itself which, precisely, “just stands there / with the patience of vegetables / and saints / until the whole earth has turned around”.

At the end of her A Poetry Handbook Mary Oliver writes: “Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision – a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed”.

Elena Buia Rutt




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 28, 2020