Mary Oliver, poet of quietude and wonder

Articles and essays have been pouring forth from the web in tribute to the poet Mary Oliver since her passing on January 17. America’s most-read contemporary poet by far, Oliver approached the world with open-eyed wonder and delight, writing simply about nature and spirituality. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement,” she wrote in “When Death Comes.”

Mary Oliver
Photo: Angel Valentin / New York Times

Although Oliver won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, she has been dismissed by many poetry critics as trivial, unsubtle, just an old-fashioned romantic. But that’s precisely what so many of her readers love about her: her uncomplicated free verse that finds beauty and mystery in the ordinariness of the natural world. She always insisted that poetry “mustn’t be fancy”; it should be clear, so as to be understood.

The subjects of most of her poems are the flora and fauna of, most especially, New England, where she lived most of her adult life. Herons, egrets, swans, geese, goldfinches, owls, loons; turtles, snakes, and toads; foxes, porcupines, moles, bears, deer, and dogs (a whole volume on dogs!); ants and grasshoppers, beetles and bees; whelks and whales and sea mice; daisies and goldenrod, roses and poppies and peonies; and so forth.

Oliver, though influenced by the Christianity of her youth, did not ultimately join the church. But, like Whitman and Thoreau before her, she perceived an unseen, transcendental Presence within the natural world. She even sometimes called that Presence “God” and even “Lord,” especially in her later poems. She carried on the long tradition of reading with relish the “book of nature”—nature as a source of divine revelation, a teacher of spiritual lessons. For example, in “Some Herons,” she describes the bird as “a blue preacher,” and in “The Chat,” she writes,

oh, Lord,
what a lesson
you send me
as I stand

listening
to your rattling, swamp-loving chat
singing
of his simple, leafy life—

how I would like to sing to you
all night
in the dark
just like that.

Oliver’s “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale” is one of my favorite Creation poems, and this isn’t the only poem of hers that acknowledges a Creator God. “Spring at Blackwater: I Go Through the Lessons Already Learned” opens tenderly, sweetly, “He gave the fish / her coat of foil, / and her soft eggs.”

Some things I’ve learned from Mary Oliver: Gratitude. Awe. Silence. Prayer. Attention. And these five qualities are all interconnected. Her personal manifesto can be summed up by the fourth section of her poem “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

If you’d like to read Mary Oliver, I highly recommend her final book, Devotions (2017), a compilation of 200+ previously published poems selected by Oliver herself and put out by Penguin. Spanning her career of more than fifty years, the book, though not exhaustive, presently serves as the definitive collection of her work.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

Coincidentally, I was in the middle of reading this volume when I found out about Oliver’s death. Several of her poems confront mortality, the transience of life, and many of her obituary writers have been fond of recalling those oft-quoted final lines of “The Summer Day.” But I am drawn to her “Prayer,” which when I read it instantly made me think of my play-full, wonder-full aunt whose ashes, too, now dance in the ocean:

May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.


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“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Starry, Starry Night by Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith (American, 1954–), Starry, Starry Night, 2013

“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Nearing the start of that mysterious last season
Which brings us to the close of the other four,
I’m somewhat afraid and don’t know how to prepare
So I will praise you.

I will praise you for the glaze on buttercups
And for the pearly scent of wild fresh water
And the great crossbow shapes of swans flying over
With that strong silken threshing sound of wings
Which you gave them when you made them without voices.

And I will praise you for crickets.
On starry autumn nights
When the earth is cooling
Their rusty diminutive music
Repeated over and over
Is the very marrow of peace.

And I praise you for crows calling from treetops
The speech of my first village,
And for the sparrow’s flash of song
Flinging me in an instant
The joy of a child who woke
Each morning to the freedom
Of her mother’s unclouded love
And lived in it like a country.

And I praise you that from vacant lots
From only broken glass and candy wrappers
You raise up the blue chicory flowers.

I thank you for that secret praise
Which burns in every creature,
And I ask you to bring us to life
Out of every sort of death

And teach us mercy.

This poem appears in Living Things: Collected Poems (Hanover, NH: Zoland Books/Steerforth Press, 2006) and is used here by permission of the publisher.

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Anne Porter (1911–2011) is one of the last century’s foremost poets of thanks and praise. She wrote all her life, occasionally sharing poems with friends and family, but she focused mainly on raising five kids with her husband, Fairfield Porter, who was a painter.

Motherhood paintings by Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter (American, 1907–1975): Anne Reading to Laurence, 1947, oil on Masonite, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Katie and Anne, 1949, oil on board, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Anne, Lizzie and Katie, 1958, oil on canvas, 78 × 60 in., Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska.

She wrote “Leavetaking” upon entering old age, and after her husband had died. As her body grew weaker and more burdensome and death drew nearer, she still found much to praise God for—for the regal shape of swans’ wings overhead, for the “rusty diminutive music” of crickets on starry nights, for the vast love between mother and child, for the hope of resurrection preached in abandoned lots where flowers rise out of debris.

Some years later, Porter’s friend David Shapiro, a literary critic and fellow poet, asked if for his birthday, she could compile some of her poems for him. She gathered up what she could find in the house, and without her foreknowledge, he submitted it to a publisher. The resulting collection, An Altogether Different Language (1994), was published when she was eighty-three and was named a finalist for the National Book Award.

In the foreword to that first book of hers, Shapiro wrote,

If we have problems, because so much of the language of belief has grown connotatively encrusted, then we wait for the poets who believe enough and can freshen this dialect.

Anne Porter is one of the rare poets who believes enough, who lives in days and holidays, and who has stunningly found a language to transmit her Franciscan joy in created things.

Also from the foreword:

  • “Her faith has enlarged her, not the reverse, and her poetry has the grandeur of seeing things ‘as if for the first time.’”
  • “Her greatest emotional perspective is that of praise.”
  • She is “an American religious poet of stature who reminds us that the idea of the holy is still possible for us.”
  • “For Anne Porter, the holy is found in a commitment to Christ the Mediator and his triumph in suffering for a suffering world. However, she gives a constant, almost pantheistic pressure to the theme that the Kingdom of God is within and without, so that her radiant if concise imagism is all in the service of God.”

Whereas many modern and contemporary poets write about the hiddenness of God, the deus absconditus, Porter wrote unabashedly about the myriad ways in which God reveals himself in the world. Her second and last book, Living Things: Collected Poems (2006), brings together thirty-nine new poems with those published in the previous volume.

In 2010, theologian and biblical scholar Ellen F. Davis wrote a beautiful article for the Christian Century titled “Our proper place: The poetry of care and loss,” in which she discusses Porter’s poetry alongside that of Mary Oliver. Like Oliver, she says, Porter is a “direct descendant of the psalmists”; she “clarif[ies] what is at stake in the Psalter: nothing less than the possibility of praising God truly.”

Sky World (Artful Devotion)

Tomorrow begins Allhallowtide, a three-day Christian festival in which the saints in heaven are remembered. Several friends of mine have lost loved ones this year—siblings, parents, uncles—and just this month my church said goodbye to one of its dear members who passed on. All Hallows’ Day, the central observance of the triduum, recognizes that a spiritual bond still exists between the departed saints and those on earth, whom Christ binds together in one communion. So let us honor this week the memory of those who have gone before us in faith, praising our great and gracious God who sanctifies his people—and who is preparing a family reunion like no other!

Visitations by Joseph Kinnebrew
Joseph Kinnebrew (American, 1942–), Visitations: Gifts; A Slight Lapse of Purpose; Hand Stands; Yea; Majorette, 1994–97. Cast iron, 54 to 69 inches tall. Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

. . . they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. . . . Their hope is full of immortality.

—Wisdom of Solomon 3:2–4

(Note: The Wisdom of Solomon, or the Book of Wisdom, is a deuterocanonical book, meaning it is part of the Septuagint but not the Hebrew canon and therefore is not recognized as canonical by Protestants. However, it still contains spiritual wisdom and, as Martin Luther believed, is “useful and good to read” alongside the inspired scriptures.)

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SONG: “Sky World” | Words and music by Theresa Bear Fox, 2015 | Performed by Teio Swathe (vocals) and Supaman (dance), 2017

“Sky World” was written in Mohawk and English by Theresa Bear Fox of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation as a song of remembrance for those who have passed on. An abridged version was recently recorded by Teio Swathe and released as a music video with Apsáalooke hip-hop artist Supaman fancy-dancing (that’s actually the name of the style!) in White Sands, New Mexico. On October 12 the video won a Nammy Award.

Ha io ho we iaa
Ha na io ho we ia he
Io ha io ha io ho we ia
Ha na io ho we ia he
Ha io ha io ho we ia
Ha na io haioho we ia
Iooho we ia
We ha na io ho we ia he

Let’s put our minds together as one
And remember those who have passed on to the sky world
Their life duties are complete, they are living peacefully
In the sky world, in the sky world

Supaman lives on the Crow Nation reservation in south-central Montana. His own music fuses rapping with traditional Native American sounds and aims to inspire hope; he is best known for his “Prayer Loop Song,” which has over 2.3 million views on YouTube. In 2011 Supaman was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered, where he shared the story of his conversion to Christianity as an adult and the influence it has had on his life and work.

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This world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.

—Emily Dickinson


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for All Saints’ Day, cycle B, click here.

Roundup: Memento mori; works of mercy; ring shout; The Seventh Seal

Affiliate links: Art & Theology is now a participant in the Amazon Associates program, an affiliate marketing tool that enables me to potentially collect a little change by hosting Amazon links on my website. I already do that anyway—link to Amazon product pages when I mention books, movies, or less often, music (I try to drive sales directly to the artist’s website, if one exists)—so you will not notice any change in blog post appearance or the frequency of links. But now that I’m registered, if you were to click through one of those Amazon links (for example, Shout Because You’re Free or The Seventh Seal below) and make a purchase, any purchase, I would earn a referral fee of 2.5% to 5% of the purchase price. I have to generate at least three purchases every 180 days to stay in the program. As of now, this is the website’s sole income stream.

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EXHIBITION: “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe,” June 24–November 26, 2016, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine: Skeletons, skulls, and other dark images of death from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were meant to remind their owners of life’s brevity and thereby prompt repentance. Some target specific sins, like clinging too tightly to one’s wealth or good looks. “This exhibition represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the rich visual culture of mortality in Renaissance Europe. The appeal of the memento mori, featuring macabre imagery urging us to ‘remember death,’ reached the apex of its popularity around 1500, when artists treated the theme in innovative and compelling ways. Exquisite artworks—from ivory prayer beads to gem-encrusted jewelry—evoke life’s preciousness and the tension between pleasure and responsibility, then and now.” A symposium, “Last Things: Luxury Goods and Memento Mori Culture in Europe, ca. 1400-1550,” will be held November 3–4. You can read a review of the exhibition at Hyperallergic.

Memento mori (prayer bead)
Ivory prayer bead, France or southern Netherlands, 1530. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On one side of the carving is a man, on another a woman, and grinning sardonically between them is a skull, worms crawling through its bared teeth.
Vanitas (16th century)
Vanitas, Germany, ca. 1525. Boxwood. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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ART COMMENTARY: The Seven Works of Mercy (+ Part 2) by the Master of Alkmaar: The corporal works of mercy, seven in number, are a traditional Catholic practice of serving the physical needs of others. Derived from Matthew 25:31–46 (cf. Isaiah 58:6–10) and Tobit 1:16–22, they are to: (1) feed the hungry, (2) give water to the thirsty, (3) clothe the naked, (4) shelter the homeless, (5) care for the sick, (6) visit the imprisoned, and (7) bury the dead. Earlier this month Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker wrote a two-part visual meditation on a Netherlandish polyptych (altarpiece with four or more panels) from the sixteenth century that treats this topic. In the background of each contemporary enactment of mercy stands a silently affirming Jesus. To view the panels in high resolution, visit the Rijksmuseum website.

Seven Works of Mercy
The Master of Alkmaar, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1504. Oil on seven panels, 120 × 472 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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ALBUM: Spirituals and Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast by the McIntosh County Shouters: The McIntosh County Shouters from coastal Georgia are the last community in America to perform the traditional ring shout, a shuffle-step devotional movement, accompanied by singing, that is rooted in the ritual dances of West Africa and was forged by the Atlantic slave trade. Shouting differs from traditional black religious music in repertory, style, and execution, Art Rosenbaum writes in Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. In 1980 two folklorists, astonished to find the form still in use, encouraged practitioners to take it public. The community thus assembled a small touring group, and in 1984, under the Smithsonian Folkways label, they released their first album. This year they released their second, with a mostly new selection of songs (all but three) and all-new performances. You can watch “Jubilee” below. (Thanks, Global Christian Worship, for the tip!)

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FILM: The Seventh Seal (1958): After receiving several recommendations, I finally watched this classic of world cinema, directed by Ingmar Bergman, and actually enjoyed it more than I expected. It follows the medieval knight Antonius Block as he returns, disillusioned and exhausted, from a decade-long Crusade, only to encounter Death, whom he challenges to a fateful game of chess. (This central image, Bergman said, was inspired by a church fresco, reproduced below.)

Death Playing Chess by Albertus Pictor
Albertus Pictor (Swedish, ca. 1440–ca. 1507), Death Playing Chess, 1480s. Fresco, Täby Church, Uppland, Sweden.

The movie’s title is taken from Revelation 8:1—“And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”—establishing the silence of God as a major theme. Antonius’s monologue in the chapel confessional evinces his struggle between doubt and belief:

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams. . . .

Is it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. . . .

I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me. . . . I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.

But along his way he ends up meeting a “holy family”—simple and with pure faith and hope—whose names, Mia and Jof, are diminutives of Mary and Joseph. Bergman presents their worldview as a contrast to the bitter skepticism of Antonius.

For reviews that trace themes of faith and doubt in The Seventh Seal, see David Nilsen and Steven D. Greydanus.