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Good Letters

Wild Geese in Flight by Winslow Homer, Creative Commons

“Tell me of despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

I was in college when I first encountered Mary Oliver. It was in a daily email sent out by one of my philosophy professors. I don’t remember what we had been talking about; maybe we were reading Plato, or Parker Palmer, who said once that “it was always time for another Mary Oliver poem.” But in my case, as for the millions who have read “Wild Geese,” the poem popped up in my life at a time where what I needed to hear was that I was heard, and known, beyond what I could say, and that the world was not simply what I had known it to be–a flatland of concrete strip malls and familial anger–but something exciting, something that called out to me, lonely and unloved as I had felt.

All of us who love and read Oliver’s work probably encountered her in a similar way–a poem quoted by a teacher, a counselor, an inspirational meme that seemed to come at exactly the right time. For me, the right time for Oliver was in the long awakening of my twenties where my life history and its truths erupted. I left my mother’s trailer and moved into what felt like an entirely different geographical terrain, even though I lived less than an hour away from where my mother slept and retold her dark myths at her table. I had spent my childhood listening to her stories–my alcoholic grandfather, my absent grandmother, “how can I ever know how to be happy,” she would say–and when I left, my mother’s question planted itself in my ears, my happiness still tied to hers, my inner landscape scorched by my mother’s unanswerable demands.

And what kept my eyes open in those years was that Oliver gave a single-word name to what I had known: despair. What I had known was despair, and for the first time in my life, I could say it. I despaired over my mother’s addictions, her undiagnosed mental illnesses, the dirty trailer, the way that she so carefully tended her grocery store petunias and left me and my siblings begging for her to tend to us, too. I despaired over being unloved; I despaired over a lifetime of grief, fearful that it would not end.

Oliver’s gift of the word “despair,” to me, cut through the underbrush of self-help talk that kept me from truly seeing what my life had been. Instead of just counting my blessings, I was able to say that I had suffered. Instead of just looking for a silver lining, I was able to see my heartbreaks. Oliver gifted me, and countless others, words that named the elements of beauty and wreckage in our lives without pretense, without dishonesty. If I could see a bird in the woods, surely I could see myself.

It is interesting to note that Oliver has been critiqued by many for being “sentimental.” Her kinship with the natural world, with foxes and owls and sandy beaches, can appear to be a quaint familiarity with nature, something that is cute, a surface-level positivity. What a privilege it must be to simply go into the woods and feel better about ourselves! But what I experience in her work, as does Debra Dean Murphy, is quite the opposite of quaintness:

In poem after poem the speaker submerges or diminishes self that the world—perhaps a single, shining leaf or the valentine-faced owl in the orchard—might emerge more fully, more sharply rendered, more deeply known. Self-forgetting is not mindlessness; it is the mindful acceptance of an invitation.

Oliver was no Pollyana; she was just as moved by the destructive forces of the world, which Murphy notes felt “unnameable” to her, as she was by its beauty. Her going into nature was not an escape, but a reckoning – her relationship with the world around her was a way of seeing her limits, her inability to grasp the entirety of the world and its many births and deaths. But what she discovered in the natural landscape was a call and response chorus among the animals and trees, the rocks and ocean waves. She heard the holy love of creation calling out to her, and she could not refuse the invitation. Her repose on the feast day of St. Anthony the Great, the desert monastic who said, “my book is the nature of creatures; and this book is always in front of me when Ι want to read the words of God,” should not be lost on anyone. 

When I became a professor myself, I bought a plaque that had a line from Oliver’s poem “Yes! No!” for my office: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” And in class, I often recited “Wild Geese” for my students from memory, simply because I felt like I had to share in the call and response myself. I wanted them to hear, as I want you to hear, that there is a place for your despair, as there was for mine. That at some point, the geese will be flying home above you, and that their harsh, exciting call is meant for your ears and mine, our places announced, our hearts invited to be open, truthful, trusting. Surely, you can hear it. Surely, you can see.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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