Last month, AfterEllen Book Clubbers did something they were probably completely unaware of: they chose the book of poetry that was most perfect for me. Thank you, AfterEllen Book Clubbers! But I also have to admit that while I absolutely loved Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings, I’m still at a loss about how exactly to discuss it. This is part of a general weakness I feel as an English teacher. I don’t know how to analyze poetry. I just know how to feel it. I can tell you my favorite lines, but I can’t break those lines down into objective parts, into specific symbolism, and the truth is I don’t even really want to. I can tell you they’re my favorite lines because they sound the prettiest and make the most sense inside of myself. But that’s all I’ve got.
The reason that Mary Oliver was perfect for me was because so many of her poems have to do with the natural world, with quietly observing the birds and the trees and sea around her, questioning both their meaning and how they are reflected within herself, within humanity. Which is also part of why I was a little surprised that her book was the one that was picked, as Adrienne Rich and Andrea Gibson have louder, more feminist, more lesbian infused pages. There is no reference to Oliver’s sexuality in A Thousand Mornings, no mention of her lifelong partner Molly Malone, who died eight years ago, although there are a few brief notions of handling loneliness with grace, of coming to the end of a life and wondering if you have lived and loved enough, that could make sense in the space Oliver is now in. One of the epigraphs of the book, from C.G. Jung, also seems to be a nod to carrying on in the face of grief: “The life that I could still live, I should live, and the thoughts that I could still think, I should think.”
But of course I think that is the point of Oliver’s poems. You don’t have to know about her personal life to understand them; they are meant to be for everyone. That is often the delicate juxtaposition of poetry, an artform that is meant to be universal while being so inherently personal, an attempt to be selfish but selfless all at once. In all of Oliver’s prose about both the natural world and her inner self, I hear that balance, of being a small part of a giant universe, but a small part that still counts.
And the reason why it’s so nice to have the Andrea Gibsons and the Adrienne Riches AND the Mary Olivers is that sometimes, I want the loud and the angry and the all-encompassing testimonies to (queer) love. I feel that my identity is intrinsically linked to being a woman and to being queer and that it is all one and the same. But other times, when I am walking through a soft forest or strolling by a violent ocean or tending to the tiniest flowers in my garden, I feel like the child who spent a lot of her time in the woods of her small town by herself, and I don’t feel like a woman or a lesbian or any label at all. I just feel like me, a small part of a giant universe.
So I suppose for my “discussion” of A Thousand Mornings, I can simply offer some of my favorite poems from the book, and invite you to do the same.
Foolishness? No, It’s Not.
Sometimes I spend all day trying to count the leaves on a single tree. To do this I have to climb branch by branch and write down the numbers in a little book. So I suppose, from their point of view, it’s reasonable that my friends say: what foolishness! She’s got her head in the clouds again.
But it’s not. Of course I have to give up, but by then I’m half crazy with the wonder of it — the abundance of the leaves, the quietness of the branches, the hopelessness of my effort. And I am in that delicious and important place, roaring with laughter, full of earth-praise.
Three Things to Remember
As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.
Sometimes there are no rules.
The Poet Compares Human Nature to the Ocean From Which We Came
The sea can do craziness, it can do smooth,
it can lie down like silk breathing
or toss havoc shoreward; it can give
gifts or withhold all; it can rise, ebb, froth
like an incoming frenzy of fountains, or it can
sweet-talk entirely. As I can too,
and so, no doubt, can you, and you.
What was your favorite poem from A Thousand Mornings?