The Magic of Mary Oliver…

April 7, 2008 at 4:03 pm 5 comments

DeeTee From DeeTee:  Well, I do like to complain a bit, and I don’t want you to think I’m losing my touch, but… I must write about the most wonderful thing that happened last week.

On April 2nd, the Poetry Foundation, along with the Poetry Center of Chicago, hosted a reading by Mary Oliver, held at the Rubloff Auditorium in the Art Institute of Chicago.  (Wow, that’s a lot of links for one sentence!)

To be honest, I haven’t been to a poetry reading in quite some time.  Sometimes the poet who writes so beautifully is not the best reader of his/her poems, and it’s always a little iffy… but Mary Oliver writes the most amazing poems.  I first became aware of her poetry through singer/songwriter Andrew Calhoun, who also writes poetry, but whose song lyrics are also very poetic.  Andrew is in the habit of reciting a Mary Oliver poem or two in a typical set, then launching into one of his own songs that is somehow related to her poetry.  Always an amazing experience.  And now, I had the opportunity to hear Ms. Oliver recite her own work, and no way was I going to miss this… even though I was still not completely 100%, health-wise.

My friend and I met at a nearby coffee shop, then walked over to the Art Institute.  “Do you think there will be a big crowd?” she asked.  I had no idea.  I wondered if anyone other than an Andrew Calhoun fan (and Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, who has quoted Ms. Oliver in at least one column) would even know Ms. Oliver’s name.  (What do I know??)

Suffice to say:  the Auditorium was packed!  My friend and I sat way up high in the balcony, as the lower seats were completely filled.  I blew my nose, sucked a cough drop, and watched as this teeny little elderly woman walked up to the podium amidst thunderous applause.  And then, complete silence…

Mary Oliver has had numerous poetry books published over the years, and now she flipped through them, searching for particular jewels to share… she said she always has a set list, but then feels compelled to stray from the list.  Her voice was quiet and steady, just like her poems.  What makes her poems so wonderful is this:  she is a careful observer of the details in life that so many of us completely miss; she is one with nature; her word choices are delicate and deliberate and reflect her world view; and although the view expressed is completely her own, the listener says, “Yes!  That is exactly how I feel about this subject!”  We feel that she is expressing our views, which, in fact, we are just learning for the first time.

About halfway through Ms. Oliver starts reading a poem about a woman she saw cleaning the ashtrays in a Shanghai airport (I do not know the name of this poem; if anyone does, please leave me a comment!).  I wish I could remember her exact words, but the gist was:  she watched the woman swishing her rag in the huge dish-like ashtrays; the woman moved neither quickly nor slowly; her hair was like the rivers; the narrator can tell that this woman is happy with her life; she wishes, somehow, to see the woman rise like a phoenix and leave the airport but knows this isn’t likely to happen.

Suddenly I had tears streaming down my face!  It was like:  This woman took the time to SEE this other woman, and feel her beauty.  Mary Oliver writes her little poems for no other reason than that’s what she does.  I.e., it’s not for power or fame, but for the act itself:  the recording of a memory in a precise language that reflects not only the event, the object, but so much else at a deeper level.

That there was a packed auditorium full of people who were here for no reason other than to hear this poetry; to have our souls revived by the magic of her words.  That in this city of cell-phone users, sleep-walkers, angry crazies, etc., there was this oasis, this stoppage of time and madness, for all of us to rejuvenate ourselves for an hour or so.

I wept for the beauty and grace of it all, for my own blindness to so much around me, and for how thankful I was to be a part of this, now.  This chocolate for the soul.  A gentle pampering of the spirit. 

After the last poem was read, the room once again erupted in applause.  My friend and I went out to the cold dark night and, when we looked really hard, we could see a few stars, just a few, twinkling so far off.

Entry filed under: Opinion, Poetry. Tags: , .

On Being Sick Just a Few Cool Links…

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. the other Mary  |  April 9, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Ah, Dee Tee, at reading your reaction to this “chocolate for the soul” (what a delicious description!), I had to check out Mary Oliver’s poetry for myself. Thank you for sharing your chocolates 🙂

    The name of the poem re the woman cleaning ashtrays is Singapore:

    “Singapore, in the airport,
    A darkness was ripped from my eyes.
    In the women’s restroom, …

    …I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
    And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop
    and fly down to the river.
    This probably won’t happen.
    But maybe it will.
    If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

    Of course, it isn’t.
    Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
    the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
    the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
    The way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
    the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.”

  • 2. Chuck  |  April 9, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    Glad you’re taking some time for this kind of thing. It sounds like a very inspirational evening.

    Might we see some of your own poetry posted to this weblog at some point?


  • 3. DeeTee  |  April 9, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    Other Mary: Thanks for your comment, and for correctly identifying that poem for me! Isn’t it just beautiful?

    Ironically, I found “Singapore” myself, yesterday, while browsing in a bookstore: it’s in Ms. Oliver’s book, “House of Light.” And I laughed, because: in my memory it was Shanghai, but it was Singapore (which explains why I couldn’t find it online), and my memory was off by a few other details, too. I swear, when I was younger my memory was photographically perfect! But now, you wouldn’t want me as the witness at the crime scene, or the culprit would never be found…

    And here is another quote from that poem:

    “Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
    She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river.
    Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.”


  • 4. DeeTee  |  April 9, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    Chuck, it WAS an inspirational evening!

    Now, what makes you think that *I* write poetry? 😉 There was a young man from Nantuckett… hmmmm…

  • 5. Chie  |  April 10, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Chocolate is so much better than Chicken Soup. Don’t you just love finding things that make you joyful? What would happen if more people read/wrote poetry and watched less TV?


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