I return to Mary Oliver’s ‘Blue Horses’ with reverence. The collection was discussed in a book club meeting I attended only last week. It alerted me to the sheer variety of ways in which Oliver approaches the world with tenderness in this collection. So here I am on a Sunday morning, with the laundry calling out to me, returning to the poem ‘Such Silence’ with these memorable lines:
What’s magical, sometimes, has deeper roots / than reason. / I hope everyone knows that.
These sentiments so often capture our human need to believe in something above reason. This need for enchantment is what Oliver addresses adequately in this book. The biggest downside of the Enlightenment tradition has been that enchantment was left in the darkness, hidden and to be forgotten. I believe it was Roald Dahl (or is it CS Lewis?) who said something similar about magic, but Oliver’s sentiment is not about hidden magical worlds. But it is precisely about hidden magic worlds, hidden plainly in sight in the vicinity of humans, among the mangroves, the swallows, the owls and even the pebbles in her room. Especially the pebbles in her room. And the way in which this magic “has deeper roots” than reason, that human asset that supposedly sets up apart. Oliver is not just being a vitalist here but asserting the primacy of magic over reason from the perspective of a nature lover. She seems to be saying that the Enlightenment has not struck at the deeper roots of magic and that if we search in the right places, we will still find it. For her, the right places are where the owls hoot, the mangroves dream about flying up to the sky, and the pebbles drink water, i.e. anywhere.
Mary Oliver writes like she wants to be read by a carefree person in love, with nature, with the self, with another. But her writing is so heartbreakingly beautiful because it comes from a place of love, even in loss. Consider these lines from ‘Little Crazy Love Song’:
A gull broods on the shore/where a moment ago there were two./ Softly my right hand fondles my left hand/ as though it were you.
The softness of these lines is unparalleled. Something about them makes you want to hold the poem itself and comfort it with a hug. It is not a love song for those who rejoice in the presence of the beloved but the anticipated return of the beloved who is already lost. A love song for the lost love.
There are many other things that are memorable about this collection: the vitalistic conversations with the biotic and the abiotic, the ambiguous fascination with tropical climes and the frequently hinted at mysterious process of being acclimatized to it, the defensiveness of explaining the eccentricity of the speaker in a poem (or in life to a bunch of friends) and the overarching thread of relating to the natural. In all its cyclical normality, life and death are represented plainly without anxiety, with an acceptance and even an eagerness that is unnerving to read.
Oliver in this collection is patiently waiting for time, or the end of time, itself:
I eat up a few wild poems/ while time creeps along/ as though it’s got all day.
While waiting, she consumes wild poems, drawing an equivalence between boldly worded ideas with soft wild berries. And that is how she sees every poem: the softness and the wildness connecting it to what the natural is for her.
P.S.: I have much more to say about this book. When time allows, I will frame it into an essay and hang it in some corner for you to read.