Saturday, June 12, 2010

Quick then -- open the door

Although Mary Oliver is one of America's best-loved poets, not everyone likes her work. A common criticism is the sameness of her poems; if you have read one Oliver poem you have read them all. I suppose there is some truth to that. But I return to my volumes of Oliver poems again and again. I read her as often and with as much pleasure as any other poet.

The very sameness that turns off some readers is the recurring source of my pleasure. Oliver's poems are familiar, yes, but -- paradoxically -- always fresh. What a gift, to never grow tired of the familiar! The owl, the pond, the black bear, the snake. Each day to be awake to a new illumination.

Several years ago the neurologist Oliver Sacks had a piece in the New Yorker about a man -- named Clive Wearing -- who suffered from a complete loss of short term memory, the result of a brain infection. Whatever happened seconds ago was deleted from consciousness. Every moment was as if he was waking for the first time.

Wearing's malady is tragic and heartbreaking, akin to death, as he himself seems to recognize. But the opposite extreme is deathlike too: Being so inured to the familiar that memory is like a vise on one's sense of wonder. Every time one opens one's eyes, it's the same old same old.

Mary Oliver's memory is intact. The same old same old is a treasured embroidery to which she adds each day more gorgeous stitches, a work in progress. She stands on the shore of Blackwater Pond, say, where she has stood a hundred times before, and she sees the white heron, or the fireflies, or some other radiance that lights up the familiar with something breathtakingly new.

That's why I keep coming back to Oliver: to be tutored in the art of seeing afresh. She has the capacity to trot out the familiar again and again -- always decked in new particulars. Isn't that what it's all about?