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...

18 comments:

kairu said...

Lately I have been reading Donald Hall's poems from Without, the poems he wrote in memory of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and in turn, her own words from the end of her life. The poems of Without seem distilled from the prose of The Best Day The Worst Day, an outpouring of grief pared away into the briefest of words.

I think critics of Mary Oliver have their points, certainly, but I still cannot help but feel moved by her words.

She is coming to Seattle next month; I will be there, and will report back.

enid said...

Try to read Wild Geese by Oliver. It never fails to raise goosebumps - even a cynic would be moved. It is one of my favourite poems and I keep it in my journal. I also find the lines He had found out that on rare occasions life will offer up something as full and wonderful as anything the imagination can muster ( Jim Harrison ) inspiring, Enid

Candyce said...

This is such a beautiful, poignant poem. Having read Before I Say Goodbye, it meant so much to read this poem.

I have lent this precious book to many of my friends.

Justine Picardie said...

I do find Mary Oliver's best poems very moving -- and I agree, Wild Geese is one of those (and her poetry can bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat). But sometimes life feels more complicated than her simpler poetry. That's not a bad thing or a good thing; it's just the way it is (for me, at least, though every reader will have a totally different, and equally valid response).
I'll be interested to hear about her reading in Seattle.
Thanks for all comments!

JaneGS said...

"To love what is mortal.." -- a few years ago I read The Iliad and was struck by the lack of love, courage, and hope on the part of the immortals--when you're immortal, you don't need those things. Perhaps you can only really love that which is mortal.

BTW, I awarded your blog the "One Lovely Blog" award. Visit my site for details. I truly enjoy visiting here and getting a dose of bibliotherapy myself.

Justine Picardie said...

Jane, thank you so much. I feel very honoured, and will come up with some favourite blogs of my own to pass on.

Juxtabook said...

I think you've caught the balance here really well. Effective and moving art, conversations, friends can all help one let go, or move on, but there is no magic bullet for loss.

oxford-reader said...

I agree with Juxtabook - whoever says that you can get used to the sense of loss has not experienced it. I think the overwhelming pain can lessen, but you never get used to that certain person not being there.
I've loved these Mary Oliver poems that have cropped up on here in the recent weeks - they are so full of power.

Justine Picardie said...

Have spent the day sitting beside my son while he was in hospital recovering from an operation. All went well, but while I sat on the chair beside his bed, I thought of everyone else that had passed through the same ward, and of their loves and losses. The thing about letting go is that it's not just a momentary act -- you are letting go of the past, as well as a future together. And in the moment of letting go, the past rushes up to meet you again... Time contracts, and also lengthens. So none of it is simple, however simple it can be in a line of heartfelt poetry.

kairu said...

Best wishes for a speedy recovery for your son, Justine.

Part of the difficulty I have always had with poetry is its simplicity. You have a handful of lines to express a fountain of thoughts. And pain and loss are sometimes made even harder to bear by well-meaning words. I often find myself paralyzed by someone else's grief, afraid that my intended comfort will sound hollow, mocking, insincere.

Gondal-girl said...

I had a similar experience at a hospital lately, the past and present seem to collide under those unforgiving fluro lights, so cold. God speed to your son's recovery Justine.

Primrose said...

I find it so difficult to relinquish anything. Youth, friends, old toys, memories. I'm a hoarder of life. To let go is painful for me. In fact, it seems to be the one of the cruel facts of life we have to do so. I had never heard of this poet before these posts but I will look her up. I'm so sorry to read about your son and the hospital, Justine. I hope all is well.

Rob Hardy said...

In the first comment, kairu mentions Jane Kenyon. One of my favorite "consolatory" poems is her poem "Let Evening Come". Acceptance is difficult, but this poem always creates for me a brief circle of much-needed calm.

susannah317 said...

I have found Mary Oliver's poems to be incredibly inspiring and turn to them again and again; Jane Kenyon's too. Musings on grief, life, the natural world - both women have given me words when i'd lost my own.

So happy to have found your blog.

Justine Picardie said...

Thank you, everyone, for the comments and kindness and solace and the poems. My son is home from hospital, and the sun has been shining all day...

kairu said...

It's a beautiful day here, too; I walked through beautiful neighborhoods full of old houses and blooming flowers, under cherry trees with their cascades of pink-and-white blossoms, and went to the museum to see an exhibition of Indian paintings, with their elaborate details of ornate palaces and lush gardens. The smell of cut grass was in the air, I had a cone of honey-lavender ice cream in my hand.

Now I am occupied with reorganizing my bookshelves; I spent hours yesterday moving the shelves around on their pins, adding new ones and getting the measurements wrong. If you don't hear from me again, it means I was buried beneath an avalanche of books.

simoncadbury said...

The author of more than a dozen books of poetry and prose, Oliver’s first collection of poems, Voyage, and Other Poems, was published in 1963. She has since published numerous books

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