Friday poem: Wild Geese

1 01 2010

Mary Oliver is lately known as a nature poet, not merely chronicling ‘the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground’, but tuning her sight into it.

Lately: She’s been writing for over forty years, the last twenty or so which light on the natural world.

This is when I came to Oliver, in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and watched as she picked up flowers and mice and (figuratively) bears and skunks and turned them over in her hands.

Taken one by one, these poems are a wonder, a pause in the rush of life.

I admit that I prefer her poems this way, one by one, rather than piled up one after the other. The images fade into a kind of nature-walk report, losing the distinctiveness of her attention, of that pause.

I offer two poems this week, the one meant for Friday, the other for a friend.

The Friday poem appears in a kind of fulcrum period of Oliver’s writing. Her early works are full of people and direct questions of the world; those later works take in all creatures except the human, drawn around owls and egrets and hermit crabs.

But in the middle is the mix of humans and animals and questions pointing toward answers. She is still attached to the specifically human world, but beginning to loosen us from our own centrality.

I went back and forth between this poem and another, finally deciding on the one below because it was the one I said Yes to first.

As with other poems by other poets, the one I choose is not necessarily the poet’s ‘best’ poem, the one with the most precise rhythm or exact language or most indelible imagery. But, as with those other poems by other poets, something about this poem snagged my attention, today.

Perhaps it is the new year, which yesterday I disdained as any kind of marker (even as I marked it). The poem is a bit more incantatory than I usually like, but the juxtaposition of a specific life mattering in the general disinterested universe, well, that works for me, today.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on you 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.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild gees, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
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.


The second is a poem for a friend. I hadn’t been thinking of her as I thumbed through the pages, but when I scanned it, then read it again, slowly, I thought of her. So, for you.

A Visitor

My father, for example,
who was young once
and blue-eyed,
on the darkest of nights
to the porch and knocks
wildly at the door,
and if I answer
I must be prepared
for his waxy face,
for his lower lip
swollen with bitterness.
And so, for a long time,
I did not answer,
but slept fitfully
between his hours of rapping.
But finally there came the night
when I rose out of my sheets
and stumbled down the hall.
The door fell open

and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hollow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.