Friday, October 16, 2009

The need of some imperishable bliss?

Before I leave Mary Oliver's Thirst, let me reflect briefly on the poem "On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate," which takes its title from the 145th Psalm.

Again, Oliver's language in this volume is that of traditional religion, and seems to point beyond and outside of the natural world. One wonders, too, what she is doing in church -- the poems evoke the Eucharist -- when we expect to find her in the black-bear woods or on Blackwater Pond. Has she pulled an Annie Dillard on us? Has the UU saint become a High Church supplicant?

Not quite. "So it is not hard to understand/ where God's body is, it is/ everywhere and everything," she writes, which has a nice Mary Oliver pantheistic ring to it, a transcribing of the Psalmist's wonderment into the language of the religious naturalist.

This too. She wishes to be good, she tells us, upright and good. "To what purpose? Hope of heaven? Not that. But to enter the other kingdom: grace, and imagination." Yes, grace and imagination. That's the Mary Oliver we thought we knew.

But wait. "And all the same I am still unsatisfied," she writes, with an echo of Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning". And it is out of that sense of incompleteness, I would imagine, that she now cries out "Lord." And fair enough. She has suffered a grievous loss, a loss that a black bear in the dark woods or a hummingbird at a trumpet vine cannot fill.

And so we come to the nexus of unbelief and belief, a turning point possibly encoded in our genes, where each of us makes a decision, to live as fully as we can in this world of wonderment and loss, or to give our sense of incompleteness a human face -- that is, to embrace a divinity we address as Lord who embodies in an unrestricted way the human ideals of love and justice.

Oliver's "On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate" and Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" would together make excellent texts for any course in Religious Studies that professes to grapple with the primary existential question: Do we lift ourselves when we fall and try as best we can to make smooth the way, or do we cry out with the Psalmist, "The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down."