Saturday, 18 April 2009
Bibliotherapy: what to read when you’re trying to let go
A relative unknown in this country, Mary Oliver is a best-selling, Pulitzer-prize-winning poet in the US, with a devoted following who flock to her lectures and readings. You’re unlikely to find her anthologies on a British high street, but Oliver’s poems travel the world via the internet, passed on by enthusiasts who admire her celebrations of nature and the indomitable human spirit. Recently, several readers of this column have sent me her poem, ‘In Blackwater Woods’; and I suddenly remembered that it had been emailed to my sister Ruth, a few weeks before she died of breast cancer.
“I am now becoming an internet poetry bore,” Ruth wrote, both grief-stricken and sardonic; then forwarded the following lines from the poem, which were also read at her memorial service (and, I suspect, at many other funerals). “Every year/ everything/ I have ever learned/ in my lifetime/ leads back to this: the fires/ and the black river of loss/ whose other side/ is salvation,/ whose meaning/ none of us will ever know./ To live in this world/ you must be able/ to do three things:/ to love what is mortal;/ to hold it/ against your bones knowing/ your own life depends on it;/ and, when the time comes to let it go,/ to let it go.”
I found the poem moving at the time, as I do now, as my sister did, as thousands of others continue to do so. But it also reminds me of what Ruth said in the same email – that after gruelling bouts of chemotherapy, she couldn’t “face any more treatment (though I might send off for some Native American gunk, having given up the acupuncture and healing, which has transparently failed.)” As it happens, Oliver’s poem appeared in a collection called ‘American Primitive’, and there are those who dismiss it as New Age gunk; indeed, one of her fiercest critics, the poet and academic William Logan, describes her as “the poet laureate of the self-help biz” (an indication of her strengths and failings). Which is why, if you’re desperate, Mary Oliver’s lyrical consolation might be an answer; but I fear that letting go is not quite as easy as she makes it look, much as we long for it to be so...