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“I Go Down to the Shore”: Natascha McElhone Reads Mary Oliver’s Spare, Splendid Antidote to Melancholy and Personal Misery

Consolation for the waves of sorry from the waves of the sea.

“I Go Down to the Shore”: Natascha McElhone Reads Mary Oliver’s Spare, Splendid Antidote to Melancholy and Personal Misery

“Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies,” Mary Shelley wrote two hundred years ago as she envisioned a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic and weighed what makes life worth living. “The setting sun will always set me to rights,” the melancholy John Keats wrote in the same era, a century and a half before Lorraine Hansberry considered the mightiest remedy for depression and observed that “hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries.”

To divert the beam of your attention to nature, to take in the staggering scale of spacetime under the starlit sky or the miniature cosmos of aliveness on the scale of moss or the blooming of a single potted flower, is to step beyond the smallness of your own experience, beyond its all-consuming sorrows and its all-important fixations, and into a calibrated perspective that arrives like a colossal exhale from the lung of life.

“Skybreath” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

That is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) offers in her spare, splendid poem “I Go Down to the Shore,” found in her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings (public library) and brought to life by actor extraordinaire, my dear friend, and voice of Figuring Natascha McElhone at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day — a hallmark awakening of our ecological conscience, inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — as Earth was being stilled and disdayed by a deadly pandemic that suddenly made the interconnectedness of life and lives viscerally real. Against this backdrop, Oliver’s poem sings quiet, powerful consolation for the fear- and sorrow-contracted pinhole of our perspective.

I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE
by Mary Oliver

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Complement with Mary Oliver’s equally, differently perspectival poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and Natascha’s enchanting narration of Hermann Hesse’s 100-year-old love letter to trees, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s ode to how the world holds together, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” and astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

BP

Of Owls and Roses: Mary Oliver on Happiness, Terror, and the Sublime Interconnectedness of Life

“The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.”

Of Owls and Roses: Mary Oliver on Happiness, Terror, and the Sublime Interconnectedness of Life

“Go to the limits of your longing… Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror,” Rilke urged in his Book of Hours, his poetic cadence assuring us to “just keep going,” for “nearby is the country they call life.” Rilke sensed that, as the great naturalist John Muir observed a generation earlier, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” In such a universe, beauty is not so easily unhitched from terror — they coexist in one of those essential batteries whose two poles, like fear and hope, charge life with meaning, with aliveness.

We see this everywhere in nature: Virginia Woolf captured it in her arresting account of a total solar eclipse, and Coleridge captured it in contemplating the interplay of terror and transcendence in a storm. And like all that is true of nature, this duality of beauty and terror is also true of the subset of nature comprising our experience — the subset we call human nature: When happiness comes at us unbidden and elemental, there is almost a terror to its coming — to the totality of it, to the way it submerges and saturates and supinates us with something vast and uncontrollable and sublime, thrusting us past the limits of our longing.

This essential battery is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) — a Rilke for our own time: a rare philosopher-poet of immense and tender attentiveness to the living world and to our human interiority — explores in one of the pieces collected in the 2003 treasure Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays (public library).

Owls from Richard Lydekker’s 1893 natural history of owls. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

In an essay about owls — which, like all excellent essays, fans out fractally from its subject to become about something else, something elemental and existential — Oliver reflects on these mysterious and astonishing creatures as she wanders the woodlands of Provincetown near her home, searching for the nest of the great horned owl, “this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.” She writes:

In the night, when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life — as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.

In this one world — a miraculous and irreplaceable world; a world in which, as the poetic scientist and nature writer Loren Eiseley so memorably observed, “we forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness… that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle” — the bloodthirst in the owl’s bosom is inseparable from the lifethirst in our own, as beauty and terror are inseparable from one another and from the fulness of being that is life being lived.

Red poppy by the self-taught 18th-century artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell from the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

In a passage evocative of Willa Cather’s splendid definition of happiness, Oliver writes:

Sometimes, while I have stood listening to the owl’s song drifting through the trees, when it is ten degrees above nothing and life for any small creature is hard enough without that, I have found myself thinking of summer fields. Fields full of flowers — poppies or lupines. Or, here, fields where the roses hook into the dunes, and their increase is manyfold. All summer they are red and pink and white tents of softness and nectar, which wafts and hangs everywhere — a sweetness so palpable and excessive that, before it, I’m struck, I’m taken, I’m conquered; I’m washed into it, as though it was a river, full of dreaming and idleness — I drop to the sand, I can’t move; I am restless no more; I am replete, supine, finished, filled to the last edges with an immobilizing happiness. And is this not also terrible? Is this not also frightening?

Are the roses not also — even as the owl is — excessive? Each flower is small and lovely, but in their sheer and silent abundance the roses become an immutable force, as though the work of the wild roses was to make sure that all of us, who come wandering over the sand, may be, for a while, struck to the heart and saturated with a simple joy. Let the mind be teased by such stretches of the imagination, by such balance. Now I am cringing at the very sound of the owl’s dark wings opening over my head — not long ago I could do nothing but lounge on the sand and stare into the cities of the roses.

Owl from Lydekker’s 1893 natural history of owls. (Available as a print and a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement the altogether wondrous Owls and Other Fantasies with Oliver on how to live with maximal aliveness, the two building blocks of creativity, her advice on writing, her moving elegy for her soul mate, and her radiant ode to trees.

BP

Amanda Palmer Reads “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver

“You too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”

Amanda Palmer Reads “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver

“Aside from the appearance of a tree by day or night, is it not kin of the human family with its roots in the earth and its arms stretching toward the sky as if to seek and to know the great mystery?” the artist Art Young wondered in the 1920s in the brief preface to his stunning Rorschach silhouettes of trees at night. Artists, poets, and philosophers have long turned to trees as a clarifying and consolatory force for our human struggles, from William Blake’s most beautiful metaphor to Walt Whitman’s reverence for their wisdom to Martin Buber’s arboreal existentialism.

Still, I have encountered no lovelier celebration of trees than the one Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) offers in her poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” originally published in 2006, later included in her farewell gift to the world, Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (public library), and read here by tree-lover, poetry-lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer:

WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES
by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

“Shine” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Complement with the fascinating science of what trees feel and how they communicate, the story of Wangari Maathai’s inspiring movement of planting trees as a form of resistance and empowerment, which made her the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and another stunning tree poem by another of the rare seer-poets of our time — “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield — then revisit Mary Oliver on how books saved her life, the two building blocks of creativity, how to live with maximal aliveness, her advice on writing, and her moving elegy for her soul mate.

For more of Amanda’s generous indulgences of my poetical demands, hear her readings of “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska, and “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman.

Amanda’s work, like my own, is made possible by patronage — join me in supporting her music so that she may go on donating her voice and goodwill to trees and poems and kindnesses to friends.

BP

Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing

“Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”

Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing

“I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too,” the irreplaceable Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) reflected in her lovely autobiographical essay on how literature saved her life. But what does it take to write such buoyant literature — be it poetry or prose — that lends itself as a lifeboat to those far from the shore of being?

A decade after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and three years after receiving the National Book Award, Oliver distilled her wisdom on writing into a short prose poem titled “Sand Dabs, One,” found in her 1995 book Blue Pastures (public library) — just a few lines, largehearted and limber, each saturated with meaning and illustrating the principle it espouses in a clever meta-manifestation of that principle embedded in the language itself.

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by her partner, Molly Malone Cook, from Our World by Mary Oliver.)

Oliver writes:

Lists, and verbs, will carry you many a dry mile.

To imitate or not to imitate — the question is easily satisfied. The perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating.

Always remember — the speaker doesn’t do it. The words do it.

Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.

The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting.

Don’t close the poem as you opened it, unless your name is Blake and you have written a poem about a Tyger.

Complement with this extensive collection of advice on writing from some of the finest writers in the English language, then revisit Oliver on love, the two building blocks of creativity, what attention really means, and how to live with maximal aliveness.

BP

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