In an introductory creative writing class I attended in 2013, everyone was asked to bring their favourite poem by another writer. Two out of the 15 students chose Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. I had almost brought it myself, opting at the last moment for Conchitina Cruz’s Morning.
Oliver represents a certain early moment in my reading of poetry – reeling my attention at a time where I was still hesitant about my ability to understand and enjoy the genre. She was the beloved poet of my late teens – a gateway poet who informed my reading and writing long after I’d first read her.
Her careful poems moved me to look more closely at the landscapes I had grown up around (the ocean as opposed to her rivers, gardens as opposed to her woods). Oliver was rather unabashedly in love with the world. But she held herself at a distance from the “I” in her poems (she’s said as much in interviews) and it allowed for some aspirational, even magical, thinking for her readers – it could be me in this scene, I could live such a life immersed in walks and poems.
Oliver addressed the reader with a gentle “listen” or a “tell me” before posing a question such as “are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” and “what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?”. It had the effect of making me seek out the answer.
I quoted her in the opening sentence of my graduate dissertation on eco-poetry (a sub-genre chosen in large part because of her). When a friend was unmoored in his life, I copied the final lines of Wild Geese to him in a letter:
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.
I would like to be able to claim a lesser known poem of Oliver’s has had the most impact on my life, but it is Wild Geese – permission slip and consolation all rolled into one poem – that I remember in its entirety. The lines, “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting,” have come back to me time and time again over the years. Sometimes, they appear amended: you do have to be good, you do have to walk a thousand miles repenting. Invoking and challenging those lines has formed a kind of moral soundtrack for the last few years.
Over time, as I came across response poems to her work, I established a different relationship with Oliver’s poetry – I had learned from her, but I was now learning from poems that did not agree with her. Singaporean poet Jee Leong Koh’s Ashtrays As Big As Hubcaps is a rebuttal to Oliver’s Singapore – a poem in which she observes and describes a local woman cleaning ashtrays in a toilet bowl. Oliver writes:
A poem should always have birds in it.
I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
Referencing the metaphors Oliver uses to soften the image of the woman cleaning, Koh responds:
...she was my mother. Her hands were not moving like a river.
Her hair was not like the wing of a bird, it was wispy.
Similarly, Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird points to the inadequacy of Oliver’s advice:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to be anything.
This is not an anthem for the world.
This life is a hard life and
It crushes people
I don’t bring up these poems to deny Oliver’s gifts as a writer, but to acknowledge that there followed perspectives that broadened hers, that expanded the conversation beyond beauty.
Perhaps even more than her poems, it is her introduction to her collection, Wild Geese: Selected Poems, that has stayed with me. Titled “Introduction,” it is really a personal essay, a sad and fortifying one, on why she became a writer, and why she was drawn to the natural world. “Children are powerless,” she began, “...they are the victims of every sorrow and mischance and rage around them...without any of the ability that adults have to change them.” Interspersed with memories of walking her dog and running into foxes on the ice are paragraphs on how one moulds a life, on how, as a child, writing and the natural world became the two “gates” she vanished through to escape what she describes, without much elaboration, as “a difficult place”.
In the one clearly sketched out anecdote from her family life, she recalls her father forgetting her at an ice rink for several hours. She had never seen him look as happy as he did when he finally arrived (summoned by another adult who’d found Oliver wandering lost) after several unfettered hours. She noticed how quickly after reuniting with her, he receded back into the “awful prison of himself”. In an interview, talking about walking often through the woods of Ohio as a child, she said “I was saved by poetry, and I was saved by the beauty of the world.” She added, “to this day, I don’t care for the enclosure of buildings.”
In return for the anchor the natural world provided for her (she has stressed that she almost didn’t make it), she paid homage to it in her poems, waking early most mornings, and writing in her notebook on the porch, walking across and documenting the landscape of Provincetown where she lived for several decades with her long-time partner. The walks were also a means for foraging for an impoverished Oliver who collected fish, clams, fruits, berries – supplies for daily meals. She ended that introductory essay in Wild Geese: Selected Poems with the satisfaction that she “did not give anyone else the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it”. And it was hers to “live...to give...back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes”.