Melting Snow and Mary Oliver

19 March 2018:

About poems that don’t work—

who wants to see a bird almost fly?

—Mary Oliver

Now that we are saving daylight again, my mornings are in the dark mostly. Now that time has changed, my alarm rings through the pitch of night still hanging above the parking lot next door. Out there among the frozen windshields, only one streetlight glows. One spruce sprawls. I fumble to my desk half-asleep.

Here I sit and jot down a dream—if I can remember one. I write down simple things. What I did the day before. What the morning is up to. Anything to get the pen moving.

After that, I pick up a book and read. Sometimes this leads to more writing. Sometimes this means I am simply awake, quiet, reading in the half-light until it is time for work, hoping for a spark of inspiration or one line I can carry through the day.

For the past week, my mornings have been a roiled space of melting snow and Mary Oliver. More particularly: shrinking snow berms along the curb and Mary Oliver’s Blue Pastures.

Like William Stafford (for me at least), Mary Oliver is a writer to read early in the morning in the dark by desklamp with one deep window above your head full of last night’s tattered coattails. Yes, I’ll say this too: read her poems, read her prose, Mary wows you with her dagger-accurate and inviting voice.

I read her essays, the scraps and bits of Blue Pastures, and learn her first loves: Whitman, Keats, Rilke. I learn how to find my voice and what a voice is made of. I learn, again and again, the simple power of pen and paper and a lifetime of little notebooks.

I take a piece of Blue Pastures, something Mary offers—“I would like to do whatever it is that presses the essence from the hour—” and carry it with me all day, all year, maybe on into the unguessable length of a lifetime.

I take the question “Hasn’t the end of the world been coming absolutely forever?” and walk out into the world.

Mary’s world, once Provincetown, now Florida—one of owls and coves, with a constant eye on the wild—may not be my world. Still, I lean in and listen. I gather something from the sand she walks. The easy moments she calls “sand dabs.” Simple fragments from the world, formed (and forming yet) on and off the page.

From Mary Oliver, I’ll admit, I have taken plenty. Her poetry (think specifically Red Bird, Thirst, and American Primitive) took me through strange years after college. I owe her a lot, as poets do.

But maybe, in a way, I have paid something back by writing my own poems, finding my own way.

And now—now that I have her dagger-accurate Blue Pastures to return to as well—I carry her into my world at thirty—no longer fresh from college, no longer living an older life in Oklahoma City.

These days, on the boot heels of Montana’s spring, Mary tells me about her life of writing, about Provincetown, about her dog, about childhood. I learn many things from Mary still. Her stories of foxes keep me awake in this pre-dawn dark, here, a long way from where I first found her, saving daylight once again.

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