As I sat in bed last night, debating between Marilynne Robinson’s Home, Andrew Klavan’s The Truth and Beauty, or Mary Oliver’s Devotions, I eventually settled on Oliver’s collection of poems. Sleep would be coming quick, so a poem or two felt like a safe bet, especially when Robinson’s novel doesn’t include any chapter breaks (sheer torture for someone like me – thankfully, I have Book Darts). I had just turned to the poems selected from her 1997 work West Wind. All I needed to read was the first poem in that selection, the poem I share with you tonight.
Clearly, I’m addicted to Mary Oliver’s poetry, but the timing of this gem seemed divinely orchestrated. In my British Literature class, we are working our way through J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, and in our discussion today, my focus turned to the theme of Adventure and Struggle. As the hobbits -Frodo, Sam, and Pippin – finally leave the Shire in the third chapter, the reality that life is an adventure, full of struggles, sometimes as a result of evil forces working against you, becomes apparent. Frodo complains to Gildor the elf about not being able to simply cross the Shire in peace, and Gildor responds, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” Eventually, the chapter ends with Frodo’s important question of where to find courage. And that is the question I proposed to my students. We struggled with the reality of the times we live in and what it means to live. Are we to do our utmost to “stay safe” or is living something more, involving danger and healthy risk management?
Oliver will ask in her poem, “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” Later, she asks, “For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters, / caution and prudence? // Fall in! Fall in!” I’m not interested in living with the reckless abandon of YOLO or carpe diem without wisdom, but I’m also not interested in living in a perpetual state of fear, isolation, and manipulation, bowing the knee to “caution and prudence” as they scream at me to “Fall in! Fall in!” I think it’s time we ALL try to enter Oliver’s long black branches and learn what it means to live again.
Have you Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches by Mary Oliver
Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives — tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging from the branches of the young locust trees, in early summer, feel like? Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you? Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides with perfect courtesy, to let you in! Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass! Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark acorn of your heart! No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint that something is missing from your life! Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch? Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself continually? Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone? Well, there is time left — fields everywhere invite you into them. And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away from wherever you are, to look for your soul? Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk! To put one’s foot into the door of the grass, which is the mystery, which is death as well as life, and not be afraid! To set one’s foot in the door of death, and be overcome with amazement! To sit down in front of the weeds, and imagine god the ten-fingered, sailing out of his house of straw, nodding this way and that way, to the flowers of the present hour, to the song falling out of the mockingbird’s pink mouth, to the tiplets of the honeysuckle, that have opened in the night, To sit down, like a weed among weeds, and rustle in the wind! Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life? While the soul, after all, is only a window, and the opening of the window no more difficult than the wakening from a little sleep. Only last week I went out among the thorns and said to the wild roses: deny me not, but suffer my devotion. Then, all afternoon, I sat among them. Maybe I even heard a curl or two of music, damp and rouge red, hurrying from their stubby buds, from their delicate watery bodies. For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters, caution and prudence? Fall in! Fall in! A woman standing in the weeds. A small boat flounders in the deep waves, and what’s coming next is coming with its own heave and grace. Meanwhile, once in a while, I have chanced, among the quick things, upon the immutable. What more could one ask? And I would touch the faces of the daises, and I would bow down to think about it. That was then, which hasn’t ended yet. Now the sun begins to swing down. Under the peach-light, I cross the fields and the dunes, I follow the ocean’s edge. I climb, I backtrack. I float. I ramble my way home.
From Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, New York, 2017. Pages 245-248.