Sunday, February 02, 2014

Our endless and proper work

I take down Tom Rault’s fantastical haiku

in the river
the footprints of a fish

In its place, not a haiku this time, but a snatch from a poem. Mary Oliver’s urgent, knock-on-the-head reminder:
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

It came like a bolt from the blue, that one. If I had the skills, I would make those letters dance in neon, emblazoned across my vision no matter where I looked, a persistent pop-up on the pages of my life.

I had not come across this wonderful nature poet before but it happened in that curious way it does. A friend on facebook had a poem by her on their page with a meme of some kind going on. I was tempted to read but had only a few minutes to spare then and put it away for later. Later that day, a friend sent me a link to a poem. I clicked, took a few minutes to read, absorb and then as I almost shut the tab, an invisible arrow hovered by the side column. Mary Oliver, it said again. Resigned and, needless to say, excited about this treasure hunt, I went looking for the message that had been sent me.

The poem I’m quoting from – “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?”
– is here.

She asks:
Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?
Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over
the dark acorn of your heart!
No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
that something is missing from your life!
Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot
in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself continually?
Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed
with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone?
Well, there is time left -
fields everywhere invite you into them. 
And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?
Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!

To put one’s foot into the door of the grass,
which is the mystery, which is death as well as life,
and not be afraid!
To set one’s foot in the door of death,
and be overcome with amazement!
To sit down in front of the weeds, and imagine
god the ten-fingered, sailing out of his house of straw,
nodding this way and that way, to the flowers of the present hour,
to the song falling out of the mockingbird’s pink mouth,
to the tippets of the honeysuckle, that have opened in the night,
To sit down, like a weed among weeds, and rustle in the wind!
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
While the soul, after all, is only a window,
and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the wakening from a little sleep.

The title is from Oliver as well; in her poem Yes! No! she says: "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work."

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