Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Interpretation of Poetry

A Bitterness | Mary Oliver

This poem by Mary Oliver hooked me a few months ago. I think it’s about her father. In Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary describes what she did in order to have a life of her own. This included taking a different route in life than her father took. In this poem, she describes his life as she understands it after his death.

A Bitterness

I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
I believe music had to be melancholy or not at all.
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.

© by Mary Oliver in 1992; published by Beacon Press in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, winner of The National Book Award; poem found on p. 43

I wonder what Mary Oliver’s father would say about this description. It strikes me as a perceptive and honest lament. This is the father she left in order to save her own one precious life. It’s also the bitter man who never found the comfort he craved.

In the last lines, Mary Oliver points to the strange disconnect between his ‘cold and dreamless’ world (in life and in death), and the beautifully wild yet peaceful flowers now covering the ground above his coffin. The contrast couldn’t be more painful.

As a young girl, Mary Oliver endured brutal mistreatment from her father. Her poem entitled “Rape” leaves no doubt. Nonetheless, Mary Oliver’s relationship with her father didn’t disappear. She comes back to it in several poems in this collection.

In this poem, she points to a sad irony about her father. Here he rests, “cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.” Clueless about what he missed in life and, even more painful, what he missed in his daughter’s life. All because of his undying bitterness.

The poem reminds me of my father, and the circumstances that shaped his outlook on life and on me. What poem might I write about my father? What might be his identifying characteristic? If not ‘bitterness,’ then what? And how does that affect me today?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 September 2019
Photo found at fineartamerica.com

I Worried | Mary Oliver

Here’s a prose poem from Mary Oliver, written in her later years. My brief comments follow.

I Worried

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And I gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

© 2010 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Swan: Poems and Prose Poems

Ironically, I found this poem in the front pages of Katy Butler’s book, The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life. It seemed a strange way to begin a book that helps navigate end of life decisions. Are you tired of working on this or that document, or making choices about things that may or may not happen? Just go out into the morning, and sing whether you think you can sing or not!

Which is exactly what I’m learning to do. No, it doesn’t come naturally. Worry comes naturally, sometimes dressed up as Work I must accomplish today. Not for a paycheck, but perhaps to ensure my peace of mind?

Yet even all the completed medical and other documents duly signed and filed in their appropriate places can never ensure full peace of mind. Sometimes I need to get outside my list-driven environment, enjoy the day and sing.

A calm mind. Most appropriate in a distressed world over which we have limited control.

Happy Monday to each of you, with a prayer for those living in distress this day and night, and calm courage to reach out as we’re able.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 September 2019
Photo found at pixabay.com

The Journey | Mary Oliver

Is Mary Oliver talking about herself in this poem? What do you think? My comments follow.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

© Mary Oliver, reprinted in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 114-15, Published by Beacon Press 1992

The first time I read this poem I was puzzled. Instead of writing directly about herself, Mary seems to be writing to someone else. Or to a past version of herself?

This poem was first published in 1986 in a collection called Dream Work. The current collection includes 18 poems from Dream Work. They focus on Mary Oliver’s personal life. Not a subject she’s particularly thrilled to write about. And yet….

Without her personal story, it’s possible to think Mary Oliver enjoyed a charmed life of wandering in the woods. Visiting ponds and streams. Watching foxes, fish and birds. Lying in fields of Spring flowers. Making notes in her hand-made notepads. Living a magical life in her chosen world that celebrates nature, beauty in the presence of death, and the perfectly sad and glorious ending of each season.

Wrong. Mary Oliver worked hard to ‘save’ her life. She left home. Literally. She walked away from her father’s abusive behavior, and from voices that incessantly cried out for her to mend their lives. Death followed by what? Nothing?

This poem celebrates Mary’s decision to make a clean break. It also celebrates what she found along the way. Something she didn’t even know she had: a life of her own and a voice of her own.

For that alone, I’m grateful. I’m also challenged to keep listening for my own voice in unexpected places.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 August 2019
A Dark and Stormy Night, by Warren Criswell, found at saatchiart.com

The Ponds

Here’s a thought-provoking poem from Mary Oliver, followed by my comments.

The Ponds

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them—

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided—
and that one wears an orange blight—
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away—
and that one is a lumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

©Mary Oliver, in New and Selected Poems, Vol. One., pp. 92-93
Beacon Press, Boston, 1992

Of course imperfections aren’t necessarily nothing. Sometimes they’re distress calls. Or signs of neglect.

Still, like Mary Oliver, I also want and need to see big picture beauty in a water lily pond, garden or meadow. Because, as she puts it, “I want to believe [And I do!] I am looking into the white fire of a great mystery.”

The mystery, it seems to me, isn’t simply about water lilies. It’s also about us. Especially now. Not simply because each of us is beautiful, but because taken together, we reflect the light of a mystery beyond ourselves. Something beyond our beauty, our flaws, and our “unstoppable decay.” To say nothing of the muskrats (whose days are also numbered) looking to take us down one by one.

Especially now.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 July 2019
Photo found at pixabay.com

Death and The Kookaburras

First, a poem from me, a few comments, and a poem from Mary Oliver.

One loss at a time
The challenge is laid down
So transparently
The message cannot
Be mistaken

It’s time to let go
To hold each day lightly
To give up great expectations
And the hope of getting
To the top of Mt. Everest
Or even within its foothills

Yet my body and soul
Cry out for more –
More time
More energy
More beauty
More music
As greed sets in
Along with hunger
For what I think
I’ve lost
Or never had

I’ve been unusually restless this past week. It was wonderful to connect with my new palliative care doctor on the phone. Now I’m waiting for my first face-to-face conversation, and find I’m uneasy.

Is this really what my life has come to? Something in me wants to hang on just a bit more, even though I know it’s time to begin letting go and shifting my attention and energy to what’s yet possible. On the other hand, who knows what Mt. Everest I’ll yet climb or even fly above in ways I never dreamed of.

Mary Oliver’s poem “The Kookaburras” has haunted me for the past week.

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to come out of its cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, kingfishers, pressed against the edge of
their cage, they asked me to open the door.
Years later I wake in the night and remember how I said to them,
no, and walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

©Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. One, p. 87
Published by Beacon Press , Boston, 1992

That’s the challenge, isn’t it? The struggle between hanging on and letting go of what we were never meant to imprison. Not ourselves, not other people, and not kookaburras who just want to fly home to their river.

I want to let my spirit, my soul fly home. I also recognize the coward and procrastinator in me, wanting to say no, and walking away without unlatching the cage.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 6 July 2019
Photo found at australianmuseum.net.au

Within my Garden, rides a Bird

Here’s a fun riddle-like poem from Emily Dickinson, followed by my note to Emily. Today is the anniversary of my sister Diane’s birthday. She lived with ALS for ten years before dying in 2006. Diane was 61 years old. One of her greatest joys was watching hummers feast in her back yard garden. A garden created in her mind, and in reality by her family and friends. A magical place where anything could happen.

Within my Garden, rides a Bird
Upon a single Wheel –
Whose spokes a dizzy Music make
As ‘twere a travelling Mill –

He never stops, but slackens
Above the Ripest Rose –
Partakes without alighting
And praises as he goes,

Till every spice is tasted –
And then his Fairy Gig
Reels in remoter atmospheres –
And I rejoin my Dog,

And He and I, perplex us
If positive, ‘twere we –
Or bore the Garden in the Brain
This Curiosity –

But He, the best Logician,
Refers my clumsy eye –
To just vibrating Blossoms!
An Exquisite Reply!

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Dearest Emily,

What a fun riddle! Of course the answer is obvious, at least to your Dog. What isn’t so obvious is how your nimble mind creates miniature stage productions from fleeting, everyday realities.

I don’t remember one single occasion when a tiny hummer elicited in my mind’s eye a complete and detailed account of what was going on before my wide-open eyes—all in the space of 5 seconds max.

I see a gorgeous hummingbird. You see an entire stage production played out impromptu on the canvases of your Garden and your fertile imagination.

Actually, spectacular is too weak for whatever is happening in your imagination. And then there’s your super-observant Dog who figures it all out!

I fear we’re losing our capacity to see things with lively imagination. Not just in the natural world, but on the streets of our towns and cities. And in each other.

What might happen if we could be inquisitive young children again? Or get caught up in the wonder of other human beings, or the keen observational skills of our pets?

Just a note to let you know how much I enjoyed your poem. Happy Wednesday to you from me, your erratic pen pal and sometime follower.

Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 April 2019
Hummingbird and Roses artwork found at pinterest.com

How loud the storm sounds | Emily Brontë

For weeks, this short poem by Emily Brontë has haunted me. With a small handful of simple words Emily evokes feelings of grief and shock that come from unexpected death. My comments follow.

How loud the storm sounds round the Hall!
From arch to arch from door to door
Pillar and roof and granite wall
Rock like a cradle in its roar

That Elm tree by the haunted well
Greets no returning summer skies
Down with a rush the giant fell
And stretched athwart the path it lies

Hardly had passed the funeral train
So long delayed by wind and snow
And how they’ll reach the house again
Tomorrow’s dawn perhaps will show

From selected poems of Emily Brontë
Published in Everyman’s Library by Alfred A. Knopf, 1996

Perhaps it seems strange to talk about unexpected death, especially during a powerful storm that shakes foundations and roars as it gathers speed.

Yet of all the things that might have fallen, it was “That Elm tree by the haunted well.” A giant. A fixture in the landscape.

In addition, it fell across not just any path, but the path between house and Hall. That would be the Brontë house (church parsonage), and the church Hall where father Brontë served as a parson.

The house stands at the opposite end of a path leading to the church Hall. Besides getting to the church for services, it was also the pathway down which deceased members of the Brontë family were carried to be laid to rest in the family vault.

Emily refers to a funeral, already delayed by wind and snow. It’s finally taking place in the church Hall. Whose funeral? Emily doesn’t say.

Suddenly a furious storm erupts, and “That Elm tree by the haunted well” comes crashing down across the path. It seems the only solution is to stay in the church Hall until tomorrow. Perhaps by then we’ll be able to find a way back to the house.

So what does this poem suggest? Perhaps the giant Elm’s sudden death refers to a person whose life touches everyone. This could be a family member, such as Emily’s mother, or one of Emily’s siblings. We might also ask whether it’s possible to return the house as it was.

The poem describes the way we often experience death. It leaves us feeling lost and uncertain. Without a compass, or a clear map for how we’ll proceed from here.

The poem also invites us to consider each day precious. The end often comes without warning. Especially to those we most love and depend upon. Or to ourselves.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 March 2019
Photo found at pinterest.com 

Woman Work | Maya Angelou

In honor of women everywhere who, against all odds, hold life together one day at a time. In this poem, Maya Angelou speaks for women everywhere – country, town, city, suburbs. My brief comments follow.

I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got the shirts to press
The tots to dress
The cane to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.

Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
Till I can rest again.

Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.
Sun, rain, curving sky

Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
Your’re all that I can call my own.

I’ve got to open the shop
Harvest the crop
Clean out the pool
Visit the jail
Get to the school
Teach all the classes
Pick up the mail
Raise food for the masses
I’ve got children to tend
The clothes to mend
I got to
I got to
I got to

Maya Angelou, in Poetry for Young People, p. 19
Published by Sterling Children’s Books in 2013

I resonate with Maya Angelou’s emphasis on the role of nature. Not simply as the truly beautiful and awe-inspiring reality it is, but as solace. A power that takes us out of ourselves. Or better, helps us find our true selves. Not as any human being, but as the one-of-a-kind person each of us was created to be.

True, nature sometimes wreaks horrific havoc. Yet not even Angelou’s “fiercest wind” meets the standard for tornado or tsunami status. Rather, she sees changes of weather as invitations to reconnect with nature. Not to slack off, but to rest in the only thing she can “call my own.”

Finally, did you notice how the poem loops back to the top near the very end?

If you’d like to know more about how we’ve failed worldwide to account for women’s unpaid work, check out this June 2018 article.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 8 March 2019
Photo found at newsdeeply.com in an article on women’s unpaid work

Little Girl Speakings | Maya Angelou

Here’s a poem for children. A taunt song of sorts, best heard when recited out loud, with appropriate emphasis on key words. Perhaps you’ve sung songs like this to yourself many times. My comments follow.

Little Girl Speakings

Ain’t nobody better’n my Daddy,
you keep yo’ quauter,
I ain’t yo’ daughter.
Ain’t nobody better’n my Daddy.

Ain’t nothing prettier’n my dollie,
heard what I said
don’t pat her head,
Ain’t nothing prettier’n my dollie.

No lady cookinger than my Mommy,
smell that pie,
see I don’t lie,
No lady cookinger than my Mommy.

Maya Angelou, in Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou
Published by Sterling Children’s Books, New York, 2013

quauter–quarter
cookinger–better as a cook

All my childhood I waged a double war. One war was with my father, at home. There I was his ‘problem,’ and he was the man sent by God to correct the problem. Maya Angelou’s poem wouldn’t have worked for this home-grown war.

The second war, however, was with childhood acquaintances and classmates who seemed to think male clergymen were sissies, or at least not ‘real men.’ Unless, of course, they were senior pastors in one of the big churches in the city. In their eyes, my father wasn’t one of the ‘real men.’ I know this because I watched their faces as I tried to explain my father’s situation.

Maya Angelou’s poem can be read as an in-your-face response to people who believe their privileged families and circumstances are better than her own. Note the repeated words ‘nobody,’ ‘nothing,’ and ‘no lady.’ She leaves no room for doubt. She has the best deal in town. They do not.

I can also imagine Angelou writing this poem for young girls surrounded by a better-than-thou, unforgiving world. Her poem is a gift of empirical, emotional truth. It’s for all young girls learning to take care of themselves and their voices, especially when the world wants to ignore and belittle them and their circumstances.

In either case, the hero in this poem isn’t Daddy, Mommy, or even ‘my dollie.’ It’s the young girl who dares to sing this song over and over, no matter the circumstances. Think of it as voice training for the 21st century.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 February 2019
Photo of young Maya Angelou found at atlantablackstar.com

Why Mary Oliver’s words matter

A few years ago a friend introduced me to Mary Oliver via one of her books of poetry, Thirst. Spare on words and extravagantly beautiful, her forty-three poems grabbed my heart and my imagination. The collection focuses on her grief after the death of her longtime partner, and her struggle to find words that capture the reality of her faith.

Mary Oliver challenges me in ways similar to Emily Dickinson, with one exception. Oliver’s poetry, also heavy with meaning, is remarkably and painfully direct. In each poem she invites me to enlarge the way I see, experience and respond to what seems everyday and ordinary.

Since her death on January 17, scores of visitors have visited this site looking for posts about Mary Oliver. At the top of the list: It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, a poem about prayer.

In the last week I’ve read and listened to multiple tributes to Mary Oliver. Her poetry is stunning; her challenge to us as human beings is direct and piercing: Wake up, Observe, Report. Not simply about nature, but about this world and its creatures as part of God’s great poem. A reality we ignore to our great loss.

Here’s one of Mary Oliver’s shorter poems. I love the way it makes simple what isn’t always easy.

Musical Notation: 2

Everything is His.
The door, the door jamb.
The wood stacked near the door.
The leaves blown upon the path
that leads to the door.
The trees that are dropping their leaves
the wind that is tripping them this way and that way,
the clouds that are high above them,
the stars that are sleeping now beyond the clouds

and, simply said, all the rest.

When I open the door I am so sure so sure
all this will be there, and it is.
I look around.
I fill my arms with the firewood.
I turn and enter His house, and close His door.

Mary Oliver, from poems in Thirst, p. 38; published by Beacon Press (2006)

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 January 2019

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