Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Readings. Mary Oliver.

The crowd at Benaroya Hall is not the usual symphony crowd. Here is a sea of silver-haired women, natural fibers, neutral colors, ethnic shawls and scarves and jewelry, very little makeup. Not sleek and black and gleaming gold, glittering diamonds. They are clutching volumes of poetry, hoping for an autograph at the end of an evening of poetry. The hall is nearly full, 2,500 Mary Oliver fans. E. is here, with her friends, and it was she who introduced me to the poetry of Mary Oliver a year or two ago, as she introduced me to Donald Hall more recently, just this year. I can see her, a few rows behind and to the left, a halo of curly grey-blonde hair. I wave, but she does not see me, on the far right of the auditorium.

Mary Oliver is a small woman, or appears to be, behind the podium. She introduces her sign-language translator, a handsome man wearing all black. She is sharp and funny - unbelievably funny - and every word seemed to captivate the entire audience. We were spellbound, laughing and sighing in turn, like one giant, single organism of 2,500 souls. When she announced that she would read, by request, the poem Wild Geese, a collective murmur swept over the crowd like a wave. There were twenty-five poems in all, several of them brief haikus written while a broken arm made typing difficult, one long poem that was a single, fractured sentence lengthened by pauses and dashes. But this is the poem that everyone knows.

Wild Geese.

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,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I first encountered this poem in A Book of Luminous Things, a poetry anthology collected by Czeslaw Milosz, and it never fails to capture my attention.