Provincetown poet Mary Oliver died yesterday at 83. Bryan Marquard has written a lovely obit in the Globe, and I’m sure more tributes will follow.
The Summer Day
Two of many of her poems that have stayed with me over the years.
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
The poppies send up their orange flares; swaying in the wind, their congregations are a levitation
of bright dust, of thin and lacy leaves. There isn’t a place in this world that doesn’t
sooner or later drown in the indigos of darkness, but now, for a while, the roughage
shines like a miracle as it floats above everything with its yellow hair. Of course nothing stops the cold,
black, curved blade from hooking forward— of course loss is the great lesson.
But I also say this: that light is an invitation to happiness, and that happiness,
when it’s done right, is a kind of holiness, palpable and redemptive. Inside the bright fields,
touched by their rough and spongy gold, I am washed and washed in the river of earthly delight—
and what are you going to do— what can you do about it— deep, blue night?
Storytelling goes well with the season (telling a ghost story was once a Christmas Eve tradition). The English satirist Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro) does capture one response to the holiday.
They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying. I shall never forget putting in a Christmas at the Babwolds’. Mrs. Babwold is some relation of my father’s–a sort of to-be-left-till- called-for cousin–and that was considered sufficient reason for my having to accept her invitation at about the sixth time of asking; though why the sins of the father should be visited by the children–you won’t find any notepaper in that drawer; that’s where I keep old menus and first-night programs.
Mrs. Babwold wears a rather solemn personality, and has never been known to smile, even when saying disagreeable things to her friends or making out the Stores list. She takes her pleasures sadly. A state elephant at a Durbar gives one a very similar impression. Her husband gardens in all weathers. When a man goes out in the pouring rain to brush caterpillars off rose-trees, I generally imagine his life indoors leaves something to be desired; anyway, it must be very unsettling for the caterpillars.
Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fens. The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that color), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me. Mrs. Babwold put on a first-aid-to-the-injured expression, and asked him why he didn’t publish a book of his sporting reminiscences; it would be SO interesting. She didn’t remember till afterwards that he had given her two fat volumes on the subject, with his portrait and autograph as a frontispiece and an appendix on the habits of the Arctic mussel.
It was in the evening that we cast aside the cares and distractions of the day and really lived. Cards were thought to be too frivolous and empty a way of passing the time, so most of them played what they called a book game. You went out into the hall–to get an inspiration, I suppose–then you came in again with a muffler tied round your neck and looked silly, and the others were supposed to guess that you were “Wee MacGreegor.” I held out against the inanity as long as I decently could, but at last, in a lapse of good-nature, I consented to masquerade as a book, only I warned them that it would take some time to carry out. They waited for the best part of forty minutes, while I went and played wineglass skittles with the page-boy in the pantry; you play it with a champagne cork, you know, and the one who knocks down the most glasses without breaking them wins. I won, with four unbroken out of seven; I think William suffered from over- anxiousness. They were rather mad in the drawing-room at my not having come back, and they weren’t a bit pacified when I told them afterwards that I was “At the end of the passage.”
“I never did like Kipling,” was Mrs. Babwold’s comment, when the situation dawned upon her. “I couldn’t see anything clever in Earthworms out of Tuscany–or is that by Darwin?”
Of course these games are very educational, but, personally, I prefer bridge.
On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English fashion. The hall was horribly drafty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect. A young lady with a confidential voice favored us with a long recitation about a little girl who died or did something equally hackneyed, and then the Major gave us a graphic account of a struggle he had with a wounded bear. I privately wished that the bears would win sometimes on these occasions; at least they wouldn’t go vaporing about it afterwards. Before we had time to recover our spirits, we were indulged with some thought-reading by a young man whom one knew instinctively had a good mother and an indifferent tailor–the sort of young man who talks unflaggingly through the thickest soup, and smooths his hair dubiously as though he thought it might hit back. The thought-reading was rather a success; he announced that the hostess was thinking about poetry, and she admitted that her mind was dwelling on one of Austin’s odes. Which was near enough. I fancy she had been really wondering whether a scrag-end of mutton and some cold plum-pudding would do for the kitchen dinner next day. As a crowning dissipation, they all sat down to play progressive halma, with milk-chocolate for prizes. I’ve been carefully brought up, and I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air- filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.
I hate traveling on Boxing Day, but one must occasionally do things that one dislikes.