During the season of Lent, a group of us at my church did a 6 week series of journaling exercises that came from the intriguing company SALT; it's still available here. Each week gave us a Mary Oliver poem, a passage from the Bible, and writing prompts. It was during this journey that I realized the scope of Oliver's talent.
I had made the mistake of many critics: I saw her poems as short and fairly simple. If I thought about her at all, I probably had vague thoughts of a nature poet. While she's certainly working in that tradition, she's doing so much more.
Consider, for example, this poem:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your 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 geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
call to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
― New and Selected Poems, 1992
I don't think I had ever read this poem before 2018; those first three lines made me woozy with a variety of emotions. And yet it's not a poem that encourages us to hedonism--no, it calls us to be more attentive, to be present.
Before our Lenten journaling group, I hadn't realized the spiritual nature of so many of her poems. During Lent, we read "The Poet Thinks about the Donkey," a poem that considers the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, an event Christians celebrate on Palm Sunday. As with many of her poems, I thought I understood it on the first read, and then it stuck with me much longer than other poems that are more complex.
During one of our sessions at church, my parents were with me, and later my Dad called to get the name of the poet we'd been reading. One of the things I admire about Oliver's work is its wide appeal to so many people. The poems are profoundly moving--and yet so quiet, so easy to grasp.
I love that the poems are short--easy to read in a single sitting. I love that the natural elements draw us in to hear the central message.
I love the theology of these poems. It's a theology of love and respect. It's a theology that tells us that we are worthy. It's a theology that tells us we don't have forever, so quit wasting our precious days. It's a theology rooted in nature, but in the every day kind of nature, not the travelling to a distant mountain slope with sherpas to assist us kind of nature. It's a theology so understated that many readers likely don't even recognize it as a theology.