Mary Oliver; Loving the Work

Many years ago now, when I was struggling to understand the limits of my responsibility towards people who were sad or suffering, my therapist gave me a poem to read by Mary Oliver.

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 rug
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.

I thought it was a wonderful poem that fulfilled literature’s brief, as formulated by Chekhov, that ‘a writer should not provide solutions but describe a situation so truthfully that the reader can no longer evade it.’ I promised myself I would read a great deal more Mary Oliver, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally bought myself a copy of Dream Work, her collection from 1986.  A short while later, I read that Mary Oliver had died, and as is so often the case, a wealth of articles followed that told me a great deal more about her life than I had previously known. What I read was a depressingly familiar story of a woman with immense talent, transmuted into tangible success, who was nevertheless regularly disparaged by the critical elite in the poetry world. So it was for reasons on a number of levels – personal gratitude, solidarity of the sisterhood, and a strong belief that Oliver’s poetry expresses a way of living we desperately need to embrace if the 21st century is to become survivable – that I felt I wanted to do some critical justice to her work.

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 to a sexually abusive father and a neglectful mother.  You would not know this from her poetry which seeks not the release of the confessional, but the relief of turning one’s attention elsewhere. Walking in the woods of Ohio while reading Walt Whitman was her route to escape and renewal. She became fascinated by nature, by self-expression, by the spiritual life. When she graduated from high school, she decided to take a trip to Edna St Vincent Millay’s home in Austerlitz. There she met Edna’s sister, Nancy, formed an immediate friendship and moved in, for several years, to help sort out the late poet’s papers. She went to live in New York and then, on a return visit to Austerlitz in the late 50s, met the photographer, Molly Malone Cook, who became her life partner. The two women lived for the next forty years in Provincetown. Quietly. Unobtrusively. Just getting on with things.  Oliver published her first collection in 1963, won the Pulitzer in 1984, won the National Book Award in 1992. None of this went to her head.

For Mary Oliver’s poetry was – is – a practice of devotion as much as it is – unarguably – an art. ‘If I have any lasting worth,’ she said in a rare interview late in life, ‘it will be because I have tried to remember what the earth is meant to look like.’ If you’ve ever read any Mary Oliver, then you will know that a profound, vital attentiveness to nature is the foundation stone of her work. In Dream Work, the subject matter might be turtles or marsh hawks or starfish or clams, but each receives a portrait of startling vivacity and insight, one that understands the nature of its being. Oh wildlife, you might say to me. Well, lots of poets write about that. What makes Oliver special? And it’s hard to put into words, but I’d say it’s because the looking and the attention matter viscerally to Mary Oliver. It’s not about being clever with words. It’s about finding a way for the poet to be plugged into the main circuit of the universe.

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

This comes from ‘Landscape’, and expresses with characteristic simplicity and directness the bond with the world that breathes through every word of her poetry. But can you guess where she takes it? This is what happens next:

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong thick wings.

I think what Mary Oliver understands is the extent to which we are earthbound animals with dreams of going beyond ourselves. For me, her poems only reach their full potential when humans, and their unbearable humanity, get bound up in them too. Oliver’s poetic patience, her attention, never flinch even if faced with brutality or futility. But unlike so many other poets (and yes, Ted Hughes, I’m looking at you), the violence of nature is only a fragment of the whole, and not necessarily the most important part at that. Oliver taps into the dignity, self-sufficiency, tenacity and grace of the animal world, and she remind us how close our dreams of self-extension are to these other attributes, how much we desire them, how maybe we want them even more than power and violent conquest, but gave up on them as being too difficult, too subtle for us, a long time ago.

‘You do not have to be good,’ runs the first line of one of her most famous poems, ‘Wild Geese’. ‘You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting,/ You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves./ Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ Nature, Mary Oliver understands, is our Home. It is origin and end point, it is sustenance that is both physical and spiritual, it is allegory and information. If the world were not exactly as it is, we could not exist exactly as we are, and it is only the monstrous egotism of man that obscures the nature of our dependence. But if we are completely a part of the natural world, then what we see outside has something to tell us about who we are inside.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

What the critics who underestimate Mary Oliver fail to understand is that her poetry does not ask the reader to analyse it, but to live it.

***

I don’t know about you, but every morning lately, I seem to wake to a world that is a little more crazy, a little more corrupt and unethical than it was yesterday.  It feels like the end of times, or at least the far extreme of an argument pushed to its limits. The argument is, I think, one for selfish capitalism, its components are certainly those of narcissism, venality, grandiosity and intolerance. In the confusion that this has created, I offer Mary Oliver as a kind of North Star by which we might orient ourselves again.

Mary Oliver was not interested in fame or riches, or the spoils of power and influence. No wonder those literary critics were disdainful; she eschewed the great game they were playing in which they decided who was in and who was out. I often wonder whether Oliver had read the psychologist Alfred Adler, who was writing about a hundred years ago with astonishing prescience about the courage we need to find to be normal. Adler believed that we were all longing to be extraordinary in order to overcompensate for early wounds, early fears, and that we equated in consequence being normal with being incapable. This was a dangerous position, Adler felt, because when the project of being exceptionally good failed, then we were tempted to make the leap to being exceptionally bad.

Mary Oliver knew something about this. The poem ‘Shadows’ opens with the lines

Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.

The poem is about the difference between the damage human beings can do, and the damage caused by natural disasters – ‘I mean/ the waters rise without any plot upon/ history, or even geography.’ Oliver writes. ‘Whatever/ power of the earth rampages, we turn to it/ dazed but anonymous eyes, whatever/ the name of the catastrophe, it is never/ the opposite of love.’ The quality of cruelty in the human world is of a different order, rising so often out of the failure of the desire to be exceptionally good, which curdles into feelings of hatred and envy. Though I think we may have created a category of catastrophe that neither Adler nor Oliver imagined, in our new, radical uncertainty about what good and evil look like. But both had the same solution to the problem – and that was to focus consistently on the work we were destined for, the work that is intrinsic to being alive.

Adler believed we had three main tasks to undertake. These are the tasks of friendship, of love and of work. In each case we must attend to learning and understanding what constitutes service to the community, what loving another person means, and what our individual purpose might be. Adler was very firm about the dangers courted by intruding upon another person’s task. (For this reason he was completely against parents ‘helping’ their children to do their homework, but I digress.) The point here is that these are the tasks that are given to each and every one of us to accomplish, and it is not doing those tasks that blights our experience of being alive.

Mary Oliver has an even neater formulation. As far as I see it, she rolls all three tasks into one: ‘To pay attention,’ she wrote. ‘this is our endless and proper work.’ Oliver had a very special kind of attention in mind, and she defined it when writing about her partner, Molly Malone Cook, after she died. She described how:

watching M when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the dark room, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – and empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.’

I think, if I read her right, that Mary Oliver is advocating a way of being that is the complete opposite of how we often live today. She had no interest in insecurity, pride, the relentless tracking of threat, the indulgence of competition. Her poetry invites us to turn ourselves outward, away from the demands of the ego, and be profoundly attentive to otherness with compassion and curiosity. And here I bring Adler forward again. The attention we give in this way is not supposed to be extraordinary, and it is not intended to intrude on the tasks of others.  Mary Oliver did not try to save the world; she simply undertook her work of being a terrific poet. She was clear, repeatedly, that salvation was was a problem for the individual. In the poem ‘Dog Fish’ she wrote:

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging towards them.

And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

***

Back in 1938, three years after Mary Oliver was born, Sartre made literary history with a character who, staring very hard at a tree, and its root in particular, nearly drives himself mad. The problem with the tree root is that it resists definition in the mind of the male protagonist. Whatever words he chooses to describe it, those words are not precise enough, not satisfying enough, and in this battle between vocabulary and veracity, the real threatens to win. Roquentin risks going eyeball to eyeball with existence and out of this terrifying struggle the doctrine of Existentialism was born. And a bleak, loveless doctrine it is too, exhorting mankind to have the courage necessary to live in an alien and meaningless world, taking responsibility for the overwhelming freedom of being alive. What would Existentialism have become, I wonder, if a poet like Mary Oliver had gazed at that troublesome tree root instead of a short, egotistic, entitled, male philosopher? It would still have been about full presence in the moment, but significantly, it would not have been about the battle for mastery.

Existentialism can be read, I think, as an exhortation not to be exceptionally bad in a world that is indifferent to our attempts to be exceptionally good. It has its chip of a heart in the right place. But it could not free itself from that desire for overreaching heroics. Camus came a little closer to fundamental acceptance in his myth of Sisyphus. Describing how the gods condemned Sisyphus to roll a giant rock to the top of the hill only to have it roll back down every time, Camus said that we must imagine Sisyphus is happy. He meant that the smallness of life might have its pleasures, even if he wasn’t quite sure what they were. When I look at Sisyphus through Mary Oliver’s eyes, I wonder whether he rolled that rock to the top of the hill again and again because he loved the magnificence of the view.

What if we were to swap overreaching and dominating and achieving for living alongside and paying attention and reflecting? What if we understood the enormous power of nature to be something we might respect? What if we realized that grandiose ambitions are precisely what keeps us away from doing the real work of being alive? And where we are right now, at this point in history, isn’t this meaningful humility something we can’t afford NOT to try?

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

Any anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world
can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.

 

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Book recommendations, please!

I’m doing a spot of research into the period 1936-1960 in UK history and looking for things to read that will give me a real flavour of how people lived during this time. There’s SO much information about World War 2 I’m not so fussed about reading war stories, but am more interested in normal social life just before the war and for the fifteen years that followed it. I’m especially interested in literary life at this time – anything about writers or publishing would be excellent.

I’d rather read novels written and published during this time period than contemporary historical fiction, but really good examples of the latter are still welcome.

Memoirs and non-fiction that deals with this period are very welcome.

Penguin editors in 1950

Writers I’ve thought of already are: John Wyndham, Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Taylor, Graham Greene, early Barbara Pym, later Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Non-fiction I already own: The Life and Times of Allen Lane by Jeremy Lewis, Family Britain 1951-57 by David Kynaston, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson.

Any suggestions gratefully received!

 

Top Ten Books of 2016

I wasn’t going to do one of these lists – for the first time in ten years of blogging – because I have read so little this year. But then it occurred to me that whilst I may not have read many physical books, I’ve listened to a large number. And looking back over the year, I see that Shiny ensured that when I was reading, I still read as much as I possibly could. And I adore Best-Of lists; it was reading Annabel’s (which inspired me to order three actual books in the spirit of cautious optimism motivating my idea of reading in 2017) that decided me finally to do one.

So, in no particular order, the best books of the year have been:

commonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett

Mr Litlove read this one to me and we both enjoyed it tremendously. The story of a dysfunctional family, grafted in awkward ways due to divorce and remarriage, is viscous with dread in its early stages, but strong on reconciliation and renewal by its conclusion. Patchett’s wonderful writing brings every scene dazzlingly alive.

Black Water by Louise Doughty

The unglamourous side of espionage and its complex ethical issues are brought to the fore in this stunner of a novel. John Harper has ‘looked after the interests’ of multinational companies, doing the legwork that not many people ever get to know about, mostly in Indonesia (where he was born to mixed race parents) in two period of turmoil: the anti-Communist purges in 1965 and the riots of 1998. What would you do if your survival was at stake, the novel asks? And then how would you live with yourself afterwards? Exquisite writing gives this tale terrific emotional and moral heft.

The Good Guy by Susan Bealethe-good-guy

Suburban America in the 1960s is the setting for this story of adultery and its consequences. You might think it’s a tale that’s been often told, but the Hopper-ish scene setting and the delicate characterisation of all the parties involved makes this a standout.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

Critics mistook this for a novel when it was first published, but it’s actually a genuine investigation undertaken by Modiano into a petit annonce in a 1941 newspaper seeking the whereabouts of teenage runaway, Dora Bruder. Modiano found out that she had run into the arms of the Gestapo and had been deported with her father to Auschwitz in 1942. But what else could he discover about her? Could he piece her biography together? Who was she? What follows is one of the most moving and insightful accounts of an imaginative attempt to enter the life of another that you’ll ever read.

conclaveConclave by Robert Harris

Mr Litlove and I have only just finished listening to this one on audio book, but it’s kept us enthralled over the festive period. The story, set in the near future, begins with the death of the current pope and the meeting of cardinals in the Vatican to elect his successor. It’s told from the perspective of Jacapo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and the man whose unhappy task it is to preside over the conclave. Full of details you never knew about the process of papal election, yet dominated by a powerful, gripping storyline as secrets and scandals rise inexorably to the surface, this is one fun and fulfilling read.

Americanah by Chimamande Ngozi Adiochie

I listened to this way back at the start of the year and absolutely loved it. It’s fundamentally a love story, concerning teenage sweethearts in Nigeria who are separated by their life choices. Ifemelu has the opportunity to study in America and she takes it with both hands, believing it is her route to a better future. Obinze, who had hoped to follow her, is stymied in his choices and finally ends up in the UK. The story is a long, slow appreciation of their different routes, taken as the two make it back to one another, though of course both are now in separate relationships and carrying a great deal of baggage. Essentially, it’s a book about race, and about being a black person in a white world. It’s brilliant on race. Really excellent. And I have to give a special shout-out to the narrator of the audio book, Adjoa Andoh, whose range of Nigerian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, American and British accents had to be heard to be believed. I could have listened to her all day (and sometimes did).

The Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamiltondeadly-touch-of-tigress

My sister-in-law got me started on this crime fiction series featuring Ava Lee, a forensic accountant. Yup, a petite, gay, Chinese-Canadian woman who can do maths and kick butt – what’s not to like? Ava goes on the track of funds (enormous funds) that are missing or have been criminally appropriated, and she gets her clients their money back. You get to find out what a lot of airports across the world are like, as Ava has to do a lot of travelling to follow the money trail, and you learn interesting stuff about Chinese martial arts, financial accounting and top-end hotels, too.  I’ve been wonderfully entertained by them.

The Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child

If I’m honestly doing my best of the year, then I have to include another shout-out to Reacher. Having listened to a LOT of audiobooks this year, I’m here to tell you that being read out loud is a stringent test for any work of fiction. You get to hear every single word chosen by the author, and you get to hear every single sentence, all read at a constant, steady pace. Not many styles, plots or characters can survive it. However, Lee Child’s novels really do work under these severe conditions. I can’t speak for the last five or six he’s published, as they are showing all the signs of series fatigue and just don’t match up to the early ones. I listened to Killing Floor and The Hard Way, and both were excellent – and brilliantly read by their narrators, too.

a-spool-of-blue-threadA Spool of Blue Thread and Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler

The other author who works magnificently on audio is Anne Tyler. I’ve long loved her work and read most of what she’s written (you remember they re-issued her early novels? I haven’t read all of those – she hit her stride with Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant and I’ve read them all since then). The two I mention above were real highlights of the listening year. Her characters are so real and her dialogue so wonderful and – the later you go in her back list – she is so funny and amusing that her novels were just instant cheerfulness for me.

The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick

This is an unusually fiction-heavy list this  year, and I should add honorable mentions here for Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Hicks and Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marcal. But I have to award the prize to Vivian Gornick for her set of splendid interconnected literary essays on the way love in novels has changed since the 19th century. She writes about Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Christina Stead, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley and many others. But it doesn’t matter who she writes about, the point is the clarity, the insight and the lack of pretension she brings to whichever author falls into her sphere. Mr Litlove read these to me, and he – an engineer by training – enjoyed them as much as I did. Now that’s what I call literary criticism.

 

Two Apologies

I have been a terrible book blogger this year and whilst I owe apologies all round for visiting so infrequently and not replying to comments (I do hope for better things in the second half of 2016), I’ve also got two book reviews particularly on my conscience. Steven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage and Britta Böhler’s The Decision were novels I read in December of 2015 and faithfully promised to review either on this site or Shiny. Six months late they may be, but the following accounts do seem oddly pertinent to the political moment, one way or another.

lady of steerageSteven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage is a novel about emigration, the story of ‘Everyone who ever crossed an ocean to escape the inescapable.’ Its central focus is Mariasse Knyszinski who runs away from an overbearing father and a downtrodden mother in Poland to follow her beloved cousin, Piotr, to the promised land of Canada. The year is 1923 and she boards the S. S. Montmartre in Cherbourg for the week-long trip across the Atlantic, a voyage that will indelibly alter the lives of several of the travellers. Mariasse meets a young Jewish couple, Shulim and Betye who have suffered a tragedy during the train journey from Bucharest to Paris: their five-year-old son fell ill and died en route. Betye is so prostrated by grief that she is unable to care for her baby, Dvorah, (known as Dora for most of the novel), and Mariasse willingly takes on this task. The week of devotion creates a life-long bond between Mariasse and Dora, and also links Mariasse with the Krager family, whose son, Aaron, will come to benefit from the innate goodness in Mariasse that his parents so admire.

What follows is the account of these intertwined lives from the early 1920s to the early 1960s, but the recounting of the events is in no way linear. Instead, we skip around in time, visiting moments in  the 1940s or 30s before heading into the past to understand what provoked them. From very early on in the novel, we realise that Mariasse and Dora are destined for terrible emotional hardships that will break them both, and only gradually do we piece together the chain of events that befall them. I thought that the disjointed chronological structure was the most impressive part of this novel. It is clever and well-orchestrated and adds depth and tension to the narrative. Mayoff teases the reader who wants to know what happens when Mariasse and Piotr finally meet (he doesn’t know she is coming), what drives Dora to a suicide attempt and electric shock therapy, what happens to the angry, bitter Betye, why Mariasse abandons Catholicism and embraces Judaism – and then why she converts back again. For me, the constant switchbacks really made the reading experience.

What’s perhaps more problematic is the bleakness of the story. It didn’t feel like a political point was being made here – it’s not the treatment the immigrants receive at the hands of the Canadians, for instance, that gives the characters pain. A more likely cause seems to be the displacement a person feels when they leave their native land behind, when family trouble or political unrest or poverty forces them into an exile that they will never really come to terms with, even when it has been undertaken with determined hope. And then again, there seems to be a deep vein of mental instability in the characters, combined with the hardship of just living, that cannot be assuaged. The bleakness is inevitable, however, when we consider the characterisation of Mariasse, who is supposed to be the light and hope of the novel, but who never really feels convincing on the page. Had she been a stronger force for good, rather than a nice person who is continually put-upon until she cracks, a more balanced novel might have resulted. Betye, on the other hand, leaps off the page at you and electrifies her scenes, and Dora never seems to overcome the legacy of being her daughter, or of her early neglect.

A very interesting part of Canadian history under the microscope and some fine storytelling to be had, then, but a dark, dark story.

the decisionBritta Böhler’s novel The Decision, focuses on three momentous days in the life of the German Nobel prize-winning author, Thomas Mann. Between the 31st January and the 2nd of February 1936, Mann frets over a terrible choice he must make. Does he or does he not denounce the Nazi party in the Swiss press? On the one hand, he feels morally compelled to do so, horrified by all that is happening in his beloved homeland and urged on by his politically-minded daughter. But on the other, any such denunciation comes at the cost of permanent exile, the loss of his German readership, the probable burning of his books.

This is only a short novella, but it achieves a masterful portrait of Thomas Mann. Sitting comfortably in the close third person, the voice is a brilliant evocation of a committed artist – the hypersensitivity, the hypochondria, the euphoria and the passion of creation, along with the lengthy stretches of insufficient work done, the anxieties over creative sterility. Thomas Mann loved Germany, and he needed his routine, clung to it and all the other beloved familiarities that allowed him to venture into the realm of his imagination. The occasion for his exile is an ironic one, a long essay he wrote about his hero, Wagner that became the basis for a lecture tour, and which was used by the authorities to denounce him, claiming he had ‘besmirched the memory of the great composer’. Mann is hurt, bewildered, and aware of the danger he is in. The denunciation is used as an excuse for the Nazis to search his house and he fears for the safety of his notebooks, in which he has written everything he could never say elsewhere, not least his romantic feelings for beautiful young men.

And so a holiday in Switzerland turns into a permanent exile, and from this most uncomfortable of positions, Mann must negotiate not only his personal effects, but his critical reputation. What sustains him during this time is, naturally, his creativity. He is writing the first novel in his tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers, in what would become an epic work demanding 16 years of his life.

The great novel is set in the distant past, and yet it’s so near. Joseph, too, is an outcast, driven against his will from his own land by his jealous brothers, he has to find a new home in a strange country. A stranger in a world that he doesn’t understand. And Joseph, too, takes satisfaction in order and wants everything to be consistent; he takes a stand against chaos and disorder. Against the emergence of destructive forces that threaten a peace that is only apparently safe. It’s as if when he started the book he had an inkling that the same fate would befall him one day.’

I just loved this; I have a weakness for novels about writers in any case, and this is so exquisitely done. The whole of Mann’s life is here, combined with a neat but powerful account of what was happening in the German republic. Mann is a public figure and he takes pride in his prominence; he feels a duty to speak out, at a time when ‘anyone who does nothing, participates’. But he knows to do so might be the end of his life as a published writer. The decision he comes to, and how he makes it, feel exactly right.