Not that it's that difficult to bring me to tears — but I wasn't prepared for it tonight. We followed the mass of cars and crowd into Royce Hall at UCLA. I'd never heard Mary Oliver read, but because her poetry has, quite frankly, changed my outlook on life and how I want to live it, I had high expectations. I was not disappointed.
Oliver loped out onto the dark stage, white hair in a shoulder length bob, mom-jeans a little too short for her rangy long legs, and a simple sweater. She stood at the podium cracking jokes, telling funny anecdotes betwixt and between her poems that at once transported us into a deeper appreciation for the little, important things of life, grasshoppers, how a dog speaks love, the waves parting to allow you in, and then challenged us: "Tell me, what is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?"
Her voice is beautiful, I heard others commenting on its quality as we left en masse. "I have a dog and it's my intention to make him famous," Oliver said as she introduced us to the first of four poems about Percy (named for the poet.)
Our new dog, named for the beloved poet,
ate a book which unfortunately we had
Fortunately, it was the Bhagavad Gita,
of which many copies are available.
Every day now, as Percy grows
into the beauty of his life, we touch
his wild, curly head and say,
"Oh, wisest of little dogs."
I have a little dog who likes to nap with me.
He climbs on my body and puts his face in my neck.
He is sweeter than soap.
He is more wonderful than a diamond necklace,
which can't even bark.
I would like to take him to Kashmir and the Ukraine,
and Jerusalem and Palestine and Iraq and Darfur,
that the sorrowing thousands might see his laughing mouth.
I would like to take him to Washington, right into
the oval office
where Donald Rumsfeld would crawl out of the president's
and kneel down on the carpet, and romp like a boy.
For once, for a moment, a rational man.
In honor of her friends in the audience, she read "The Journey," which is what made me cry:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
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
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.
And, an excerpt from Flare:
I mention them now,
I will not mention them again.
It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.
I give them--one, two, three, four--the kiss of courtesy,
of sweet thanks,
of anger, of good luck in the deep earth.
May they sleep well. May they soften.
But I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them the responsibility for my life.
Did you know that the ant has a tongue
with which to gather in all that it can
Did you know that?
The poem is not the world.
It isn't even the first page of the world.
But the poem wants to flower, like a flower.
It knows that much.
It wants to open itself,
like the door of a little temple,
so that you might step inside and be cooled and refreshed,
and less yourself than part of everything.
(Read the whole poem here.)
"A poet should be a good reporter," Oliver replied to a question during the brief Q&A. "Pay attention to a lot of things and write it down, and sometimes you don't realize it's your own story."
"Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches"
Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches
of others lives —
tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey,
from the branches of the young locust trees, in early summer,
Do you think this world is 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 up 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
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.