The Poet with His Face in His Hands

You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn’t need anymore of that sound.

So if you’re going to do it and can’t
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can’t
hold it in, at least go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

–Mary Oliver

For years my longtime friend Andrew sent out a Sunday morning letter. His poetic insights are always exceptional as are his observations about life. Because Andrew is less of a talker and more of a writer, I have come to rely on those Sunday morning notes to have some sense of the weather patterns forming over his inner landscape.

A few months ago the weekly notes went dark. Too difficult to keep up the commitment? No longer personally enjoyable? Time for a brief hiatus? I wasn’t sure.

But this morning an email from Andrew appeared. I sipped it slowly and carefully, painfully aware that this may be all I get in 2011. Although I can only hope more are coming.

In addition to including the poem by Mary Oliver, Andrew offered his commentary. Too good not to share.

I had come upon a pretty poem by Mary Oliver making her usual argument, that mankind squats like some unrecycled mason jar on an otherwise untouched hill in Tennessee, giving nothing back. It reminded me of a Robinson Jeffers poem in the Oscar Williams anthology of modern poetry from my teen years when I favored strong statements: “I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.”

Nature’s hard edge is an appealing ethic. But our weeping is merely the human sound of Nature and as authentic as birdsong, The whine of living is the whirr of our machinery processing the ramshackle software we inherit from eons of earlier generations, a wiring of infinite complexity, mis-coded with contradictions that set us each at individual civil war, but with marvelous power to create.

The poem denigrates human tears, hanging like drab shower curtains between us and nature’s bright river, which leaps “like crazy” through open air in its “jubilation and water fun.” Of all animals, we are singled out, for inhabiting skins of dirty logic and delusion. Yet the feathered bird that sings its birdness does so with limited self-awareness. In contrast, our tears — which fall in dull sheets and hit ground in shapeless splats — originate in a thought, de novo acts of creation. Each salty drop is shot with awareness.

As opposed to the pretty mouth of self indulgence mentioned in the poem, I prefer my own image for the complications of consciousness: Maggie Tulliver plunging her hair into a basin of water to spoil her mother’s hope of curls that day and then, in ill humor at her scolding, retreating in furies of tears to the attic, where she keeps a large wooden doll. At times of overwhelming need to act vindictive, she will drive a nail into dolly’s forehead or grind its unprotesting head against the wall. I adore Maggie, falling in wide-eyed abandon down the deep well into womanhood…

Even in confusion and guilt, we are a necessary step in the direction of God. The placidness of the thrush is already available to us in more primitive layers of our brain. We are in part made up of Oliver’s bird, clean as an arrow moving to its fated target. We are also in part Yeats’ different bird, gold enameled, the artifice of supreme imagination.

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