Mary Oliver is one of America's most beloved poets. This essay is from her second audio recording, the CD Many Miles, which contains the poet reading a selection of her work, including four as-yet uncollected poems. You can learn more about the CD here, and also enter to win a poster featuring a poem from her forthcoming book, The Swan.
Listen to Mary Oliver read her poem "Many Miles."
Photo by Rachel Giese Brown
All our lives, at least seasonally, the redbird sings, and the oriole and the wren, and in April the ponds are reliably loud with the singing of frogs, and on long winter afternoons the snow-heavy wind whistles in the pines. But our own voices, the particular voices of those who are dear or important to us-- or both-- vanish utterly at the end of the season of life. And how thoroughly also are the sounds of a certain place gone when we visit it no more, though visual joys, sometimes with great clarity, may remain in the mind.
In Rajastan, in India, a man, a woman, and a child were singing outside a restaurant; I can still see them in their vibrant gypsy clothes, the man holding a stringed instrument somewhat like a guitar, but smaller and shaped differently, rather like a gourd. But I cannot hear anymore their loud brisk, joyful singing, a strange and powerful performance. How can this be, that the eyes can keep so many pictures, and the ears have no such reliable and comforting memory? It was perhaps the most exciting music I had ever heard; I think I might have followed it anywhere; but we drove on to the next town, and now in my ears there is nothing.
Of course, the ears are not always quite so empty as I describe them in this story. One can remember voices and almost hear them again a little, especially the intonation of a familiar voice at some pitch of emotion, angry, or frightened, or tender. But for me, at least, it's a few syllables thrust into the air, and they are hard to hold onto.
Many years ago a friend and I used to go to the Old Met in New York, two or three nights a week sometimes. We would stand in the lobby and wait, and sure enough some svelte couple would come dashing out at the end of Act One, to a dinner or a party perhaps, and we-- poor but audacious-- would ask them to give us their ticket stubs. We were never refused, and invariably they were good seats: first floor, down front. Tebaldi, Tucker, Warren, De los Angeles! And then Tebaldi and the others sang at the Met no more, sang no more anywhere.
1. (Kathleen Cleaver) quicksilver panther woman speaking in thunder
2. (Charlayne Hunter-Gault) summer silk woman brushing the cobwebs off Southern legs
3. (Shirley Chisholm) We saw your woman sound footprinting congressional hallways
4. (Betty Shabazz) your quiet face arrived at a road unafraid of ashes . . .
5. (Fannie Lou Hamer) feet deep in cotton you shifted the country's eyes
6. (Barbara Jordan) Texas star carrying delicate words around your waist
7. (Rosa Parks) baptizer of morning light walking us away from reserved spaces
8. (Myrlie Evers-Williams) you rescued women and men from southern subscriptions of death
(Dr. Dorothy Irene Height)
helped us reconnoiter
the wonder of women
in the hurricane
of herstory . . .
Sanchez, Sonia. "9 haiku (for Freedom's Sisters)." Morning Haiku. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. Please do not distribute this work without permission. You may submit requests to reprint the work of Sonia Sanchez from titles published by Beacon Press through its website.
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story by Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s account of the first successful large-scale application of nonviolence resistance in America is comprehensive, revelatory, and intimate. King described his book as "the chronicle of fifty thousand Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.'' It traces the phenomenal journey of a community, and shows how the twenty-eight-year-old Dr. King, with his conviction for equality and nonviolence, helped transformed the nation-and the world.
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King Jr. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In this prophetic work, which has been unavailable for more than ten years, he lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America's future, including the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. With a universal message of hope that continues to resonate, King demanded an end to global suffering, asserting that humankind-for the first time-has the resources and technology to eradicate poverty.
Morning Haiku by Sonia Sanchez This new volume by the much-loved poet Sonia Sanchez, her first in over a decade, is music to the ears: a collection of haiku that celebrates the gifts of life and mourns the deaths of revered African American figures in the worlds of music, literature, art, and activism. In her verses, we hear the sounds of Max Roach "exploding in the universe," the "blue hallelujahs" of the Philadelphia Murals, and the voice of Odetta "thundering out of the earth." Sanchez sings the praises of contemporaries whose poetic alchemy turns "words into gems": Maya Angelou, Richard Long, and Toni Morrison. And she pays homage to peace workers and civil rights activists from Rosa Parks and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm to Brother Damu, founder of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. Often arranged in strings of twelve or more, the haiku flow one into the other in a steady song of commemoration. Sometimes deceptively simple, her lyrics hold a very powerful load of emotion and meaning.
When a writer as profoundly able as Plante pens a lament for his lost companion, the result is a fierce encapsulation of grief, the fundamentally private wrought wrenchingly public. This sublime remembrance - more a compilation of memory fragments than a linear life story - evokes a whole man (in truth, two whole men).
Today's post is from Helene Atwan, Director of Beacon Press. She recently attended the 75th birthday celebration of Sonia Sanchez, an award-winning poet, playwright, activist, and scholar whose work includes Shake Loose My Skin and the forthcoming Morning Haiku.
On Saturday, September 12, I had the joy and privilege of sharing in poet Sonia Sanchez's 75th birthday celebration, at her home in Philadelphia.
The lovely old house and fall garden freshly planted with mums of all colors were jam-packed with celebrants. Some were crowded into the music room picking out tunes on Sonia's baby grand piano, which had been given to her by Max Roach, the world-renown Jazz musician and composer, and which had traveled with her over five states before being planted here and covered with photos, awards, and precious memorabilia. When two musicians started playing Monk, poet Amiri Baraka came by to recite and even sing. Others were taking turns on Sonia's native drum set, making wonderful music. Among the musical guests in attendance were Ursula Rucker, and Evan Solot, along with the two women to whom Sonia dedicated her book, Shake Loose My Skin, former lead singer Bernice Reagon and vocalist Adisa Douglas of Sweet Honey and the Rock.
Guests were busy devouring spicy b-b-q wings and tangy collards, and admiring the art that crowds every wall, every surface, every nook and cranny in the 1940s Germantown house. African sculptures, all of women, from all over the continent, stood guard imposingly in the entry. In this photo, poet Eugene Redmond stands next to one of the most impressive in Sonia's collection, a Nimba statue from the Baga people of Guinea.
Today's post is a poem from Sonia Sanchez, which will be included in her forthcoming collection, Morning Haiku. Sanchez-- a poet, activist, and scholar-- is one of the most important writers of the Black Arts Movement, and was the Laura Carnell Professor of English and Women's Studies at Temple University. She is the recipient of both the Robert Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry and the Langston Hughes Poetry Award.
Today's post, a poem written in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
is from poet, activist, and scholar Sonia Sanchez. Sanchez, one of the
most important writers of the Black Arts Movement, is Laura Carnell
Professor of English and Women's Studies at Temple University. She is
the author of thirteen books, including Shake Loose My Skin: New and
Selected Poems, where this poem appears.
Morning Song and Evening Walk
Tonite in need of you and God I move imperfect through this ancient city.
Quiet. No one hears No one feels the tears of multitudes.
The silence thickens I have lost the shore of your kind seasons who will hear my voice nasal against distinguished actors.
O I am tired of voices without sound I will rest on this ground full of mass hymns.
You have been here since I can remember Martin from Selma to Montgomery from Watts to Chicago from Nobel Peace Prize to Memphis, Tennessee. Unmoved along the angles and corners of aristocratic confusion.
It was a time to be born forced forward a time to wander inside drums the good times with eyes like stars and soldiers without medals or weapons but honor, yes.
And you told us: the storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation or armament and you told us: the storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables men (and women) everywhere to live in dignity and human decency.
All summerlong it has rained and the water rises in our throats and all that we sing is rumored forgotten. Whom shall we call when this song comes of age?
And they came into the city carrying their fastings in their eyes and the young 9-year-old Sudanese boy said, "I want something to eat at nite a place to sleep." And they came into the city hands salivating guns, and the young 9-year-old words snapped red with vowels: Mama mama Auntie auntie I dead I dead I deaddddd.
In our city of lost alphabets where only our eyes strengthen the children you spoke like Peter like John you fisherman of tongues untangling our wings you inaugurated iron for our masks exiled no one with your touch and we felt the thunder in your hands.
We are soldiers in the army we have to fight, although we have to cry. We have to hold up the freedom banners we have to hold it up until we die.
And you said we must keep going and we became small miracles, pushed the wind down, entered the slow bloodstream of America surrounded streets and "reconcentradas," tuned our legs against Olympic politicians elaborate cadavers growing fat underneath western hats. And we scraped the rust from old laws went floor by floor window by window and clean faces rose from the dust became new brides and bridegrooms among change men and women coming for their inheritance. And you challenged us to catch up with our own breaths to breathe in Latinos Asians Native Americans Whites Blacks Gays Lesbians Muslims and Jews, to gather up our rainbow-colored skins in peace and racial justice as we try to answer your long-ago question: Is there a nonviolent peacemaking army that can shut down the Pentagon?
And you challenged us to breathe in Bernard Haring's words: the materialistic growth--mania for more and more production and more and more markets for selling unnecessary and even damaging products is a sin against the generation to come what shall we leave to them: rubbish, atomic weapons numerous enough to make the earth uninhabitable, a poisoned atmosphere, polluted water?
"Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams," said a Russian writer. Now I know at great cost Martin that as we burn something moves out of the flames (call it spirit or apparition) till no fire or body or ash remain we breathe out and smell the world again Aye-Aye-Aye Ayo-Ayo-Ayo Ayeee-Ayeee-Ayeee Amen men men men Awoman woman woman woman Men men men Woman woman woman Men men Woman woman Men Woman Womanmen.
"The Poet Goes to Indiana" by Mary Oliver was featured on the Writer's Almanac recently.
Bill Ayers was interviewed by the Washington Post for this piece that ran that day after the election—the New Yorker's David Remnick was there, too. Last week, Garry Trudeau offered this commentary on the pre-election media.
A Kentucky court dealt a blow to gay families last week in ruling that second-parent adoptions are not permitted under state statutes. Read Nancy Polikoff's reaction on her Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage blog.
Today's post is from Stephen Burt, author of The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence (Columbia University Press). His essays and articles on modern and contemporary poetry have appeared
in many journals in America, Britain, and elsewhere, among them American Literary History, Boston Review, London Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Yale Review. Burt is an Associate Professor of English at Harvard University.
There have been gay poets—or, at least (if you prefer historical accuracy) poets who presented same-sex erotic passion—for as long as poetry has been written down; maybe longer. Think of Sappho, whose name has referred for centuries both to the idea of eros between women and to the ancient idea of lyric itself: think of what may be her single most famous poem, "He seems to me equal to a god, that man/ Who sits beside you," its first sentence a feint towards opposite-sex desire, its substance an homage to the young woman Sappho loves. Shakespeare's sonnets, most of them addressed to a comely young man, have inspired centuries of arguments about his erotic investment in, "the master-mistress of my passion." Walt Whitman insisted that he wrote for, and about, both women and men, but what records there are tell us that he loved men; he put his poems about same-sex love ("adhesiveness," as he called it) in a discrete segment of his lifework, Leaves of Grass, entitled "Calamus" (after the phallic plant of the same name): Whitman inspired what later became gay movements as his poetry circulated internationally—in England, Edward Carpenter and J. A. Symonds thought they had found in his work a model for gay Utopia. Federico Garcia Lorca's "Ode to Walt Whitman" called together, under Whitman's name, the stigmatized homosexual men of the Old and New World, trying to wring new lives from their frequent self-hate.
Helene Atwan began her career in publishing at Random House in 1976; she worked at A.A.Knopf, Viking Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Simon and Schuster, before being named director of Beacon Press in 1995. She served for eight years on the board of PEN-New England and is the Administrator of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
Several weeks ago, in the midst of National Poetry Month, I made an impulsive decision to drive out from Boston to Syracuse, New York, for a poetry reading. Mary Oliver was scheduled to fly from Logan for that reading, but I thought if I offered to intercept her on the connection from Provincetown and drive, it would give us some precious hours to talk and allow me the rare treat of hearing Mary read—an opportunity one should never pass up. Mary graciously accepted the offer of a ride and, as luck almost never has it, it was a beautiful early spring day when we set out for our five hour road trip.
Photo by Helene Atwan.
As we approached the border of New York State, Mary interrupted our conversation to point out that we were coming up to the road to Austerlitz, a road she had driven so many times on her way to Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay for 25 years and then of her sister, Norma Millay Ellis. I knew that Mary had lived there too, on and off for more than half-a-dozen years after she finished high school and while she attended Vassar. The day was fine and we were making very good time, so I turned to her to ask if we should stop, and she instantly replied Yes!
And so we left the highway for a side-trip visit to Steepletop,
driving the two miles up the long dirt road that skirts the acres of
woodland surrounding the house, stopping to visit the graveyard where
the caretaker, John Pinnie, is buried, parking near the buildings that
currently house the Millay Society
and even cautiously trespassing to peek inside the old farmhouse
itself, where Mary spotted, through the kitchen windows, the dusty porcelain
dishes displayed on a low shelf that she remembered taking down
periodically to rinse off decades ago. How they needed a good rinsing
at that moment. And at that moment, eerily, a phone rang inside the
house: a sound neither of us had heard for a very long time—the
distinct ring of an old rotary dial. We wondered who could possibly be
phoning a house that clearly hadn't been occupied for eons. Mary also
wondered who'd been paying the bills.
Mary Oliver walking in the graveyard at Steepletop. Photo by Helene Atwan.
Mary pointed out the features she remembered so well on the grounds,
now in such sad repair—the pool where they had spent wonderful summer
days, guarded by "the Indian Boy" that Mary's partner, Molly Malone
Cook, had memorialized in her beautiful photos; some painted wooden
gates, once opening from thickets, now standing (and barely standing at
that) alone. I snapped some photos to compare to those of Molly from
another era. Neither my camera—the one that came with my cell phone—nor
my eye can really bear comparison with the work of Molly Malone Cook,
whose photos we published with Mary's text in Our World last fall, but the snap shots bear witness to the deterioration of a once magical place.
Finally, we took the long walk down a mossy path through the thick
woods to the graves of Edna, her husband Eugen Boissevain, Norma and
Charles Ellis, and Edna's mother, Cora Buzzell Millay. Along the path, blooming amid the very early spring
teardrops, were some of Edna's poems—almost stations of the cross, as
Mary observed, and there were at least a dozen of them. We stopped to
read each, though many Mary knew by heart. We returned to the car and
back onto I-90 full of sadness for the neglect of this once beautiful
place and especially the neglect of the academic poetry world for this
great poet. But elated by our visit none-the-less.
The next night, Mary Oliver took the stage to read to about 1,500 people gathered in Syracuse and I settled happily in my second row, just-left-of-center seat, dazzled, as always, by her words.
Patricia E. Bauer posts a memorial to Melissa Riggio, the daughter of Barnes & Nobel CEO Steve Riggio. who died of leukemia recently at the age of 20. "Ms. Riggio, who had Down syndrome, was the inspiration for Barnes &
Noble’s creation of a special section of books about children with
Wendy Kaminer on the lawsuit pending in Indiana that requires bookstores that sell "sexuality explicit material" to register with the state.
No matter what we believe, we seem to share a human inclination to speak to someone or something greater than ourselves--someone we like to think is in control of things. Prayers arrive like a spiritual emergency kit in times of need. "Oh, God, help them," we say when we pass an accident scene. Even if we haven't prayed for years.
Some of us feel lucky to know God. And we stay on regular speaking-terms with him--sometimes in ways that might seem petty to the creator of billions of solar systems. (What must he have thought of all my adolescent prayers for boyfriends and basketball victories?) But whether we pray every day, or only in times of need, where do we find the words? One surprising source is poetry.
Poets have always talked to God--and they're happy if we listen in. In fact, some prayer poems are best said out loud--like "O Sweet Irrational Worship" by Thomas Merton, with these beautiful lines: "By ceasing to question the sun / I have become light." Another to recite under the sky is "Eagle Poem" by Native American Joy Harjo, which begins: "To pray you open your whole self / To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon, / To one whole voice that is you / And know there is more."
Ms. Oliver’s poetry, which has drawn comparisons to the work of
Emerson and Thoreau, reveals an awestruck regard of nature that verges
on the religious: “What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be
proven,” she writes in “I Looked Up,” the fifth poem in Mr. Perera’s
cycle. Her work also demonstrates a discerning eye and an ability to
render vivid images with a few deft strokes.
sensitively underscores both attributes in a cycle spanning a day from
one dawn to the next, linked by a subtle, recurring four-note motif.
His music neatly conjures Ms. Oliver’s rippling pond, wary crows,
flitting bats and lazily unspooling snake. At the same time, the work’s
dramatic progression, from the shivering anticipation of “Morning at
Great Pond” to the radiant affirmation of the concluding title poem,
“Why I Wake Early,” does justice to the poet’s more transcendental
intents. Enhanced by Mr. Perera’s estimable knack for setting English,
this is a substantial addition to the choral canon.
“When we set about fixing welfare in the 1990s, we said we were going
to encourage work. Near-poor Americans do work, usually in jobs that
the rest of us do not want — jobs with stagnant wages, no retirement
funds, and inadequate health insurance, if they have it at all. While
their wages stay the same, the cost of everything else — energy,
housing, transportation, tuition — goes up.”
I write from the edge of Washington, DC, on a freezing day. I'm here performing a one-man play, The Tricky Part, which was developed from my memoir of the same title.
There's an Obama event going on at a Virginia high school some
blocks from here. A massive motorcade -- cycles, black sedans, police
cars -- is streaming past my apartment window. It is the picture of
momentum itself: wheels and steel and flashing lights, the gathering
force of change, a traffic nightmare, a future president? The high
school they’re headed to, T.C. Williams, was the subject of a feature film some years ago starring Denzel Washington as the coach of the
school's football team, the Titans.
I'm watching all this, here at my computer, while struggling to
write a script, a film adaptation of my book and play. The
tale is sensitive and complex and I am finding the task of transforming
the material into yet another genre daunting if not impossible. This
accounts for all the looking out the window.
Let me lay out the essentials. When I was twelve, a camp counselor
molested me. Our illicit sex went on for three years. I grew taller
and older while holding the boy inside me hostage because I blamed him
for being bad, for doing wrong, for succumbing to desire. I
couldn’t help it and it was agonizing. I got even older and started
writing about what happened, became obsessed with remembering, with
using language to seek meaning in the story. A day would arrive when I
stood to face a pasty old man crumpled in his wheelchair, the counselor
who'd wronged me when I was a child. The one who ignited my aching
sense of complicity. I looked at that man, at his stained pajamas; his
puffy cheeks and I felt my heart break. For the fragile human in front
of me, but more so for the boy I once was. And somewhere in that
breaking was the beginning of forgiveness. Somehow, because I'd spent
so much time piecing together the narrative of my own life, I was able
to see, to feel, how that boy was blameless and how forgiveness was the
gift I must
give to myself.
Many were drawn to the Oliver event by her
approachable verse with its intense focus on the natural world and its quiet
delights, but she soon dispensed with any notion that the evening was destined
to be some sort of ecumenical worship service of nature or the poet herself.
That seemed a possibility when many in the crowd of 2,500 gave Oliver a
standing ovation even before she had uttered a word.
But Oliver's self-effacing sense of humor soon
punctured such awe, delivered with a Seinfeldian sense of timing.
"I have a little dog and I'm working hard to
make him famous," Oliver said.
Knowing murmurs rippled through the crowd.
"And he deserves it," she added, to
That dreaded "R-word" is
indeed dredged up in Banished. When
blacks were driven from Forsyth County in 1912, many left behind land that they
owned. They were never paid for that land. It was simply gobbled up and sold by
whites who saw an opportunity to make a quick - and easy - buck. Neither the
blacks who lost land nor their descendants have been compensated.
In other good reviews of work from Beacon, the L.A. Times
ran a thoughtful and moving piece by Susan Salter Reynolds about Our World, a book that collects
Molly Malone Cook's photographs with accompanying text by her life partner, the
poet Mary Oliver.
The photographs Oliver has chosen reflect Cook's intuitive
relationship with her subjects (even inanimate objects). The little girl on the
stoop in New York City looks directly at the photographer, as does a kindly
Robert Motherwell and a fierce, almost intimidating Walker Evans. Even though
most of the photographs are dominated by a central person or object, there is a
lot to look at in the margins, all part of the story. The stance of her
subjects -- reading a book, looking through a telescope -- is always
distinctive, creating the mood of the entire composition. The two photos of
Oliver could have been taken only by someone who knew the subject well.
We women of the wealthy world profit from the exploitation
of poor women, men and children with almost every shirt we put on our backs,
almost every bite of food we take. We exploit people in poverty and never have
to think about it. And now we can profit in our motherhood -- but unlike the shirt
and the food, this time the product is going to grow up and demand an
explanation. (Read more here)
"The building up of the self-esteem is the key,"
he said, "and the parents somehow have to convince him or her that
everything is going to be all right, we're going to work through it. And in
this case it didn't happen, and so, tragic and sad."
It is precisely because of this tendency to blame the victims that the work that Coleman and the Bowmans do is so important. The hearing ultimately resulted in a dressing down of the head of mental health at the VA by the chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Bob Filner, along with the appeal that the VA start listening to the stories of families who have lost loved ones to suicide. Excuses and passing the buck are not going to save any lives.
You can find Adrienne Rich in anthologies of Jewish American poetry, but most of her many admirers do not think of her first (if at all) as a Jewish poet: they think of her as a feminist poet, as a political poet, as a GLBT activist, as a talented artificer in traditional metrical forms (during the 1950s) as a maker of harshly original free verse (during the 1960s), as a woman who challenged herself to overcome "the fact of being separate" (as she put it in the early 1970s) in order to speak to and about other people's needs. Though Rich's father was Jewish (as was her late husband), she did not identify herself with any religion for most of her writing life: in high school, she recalled, "I am quite sure I was seen as Jewish (with a reassuringly gentile mother) in that double vision that bigotry allows." Her ambitious, assimilationist father, however, "did not give me the choice to be a Jew."
Rich's 1982 essay "Split at the Root," from which those sentences come, describes her long-delayed decision to call herself Jewish in print. If you read Rich's poem "Jerusalem" (1966) you will see her view religious heritage as an excuse for violence and a trap: "What I dream of the city," she writes, "is how hard it is to leave." An even earlier poem, "At the Jewish New Year," insisted on Rosh Hashanah that "this day is merely one/ Of thirty in September," and that "whatever we strain to forget/ Our memory must be long": "we" here means not Jews but assimilated Jews, Jews who want to distance themselves (but cannot distance themselves enough) from their shared religious past.
Rich's later poems, by contrast, show her reclaiming Judaism as something to which she says she might want to belong. These poems often address the Baltimore family in which she grew up. "Grandmothers" (1980), for example, pays belated tribute to Hattie Rice Rich, the poet's father's mother, whose "sweetness of soul was a mystery to me," but in Rich's youth "a convenience for everyone": "you rose with the birds and children, boiled your own egg," "took the street-car downtown shopping/ endlessly for your son's whims, the whims of genius," and "All through World War Two the forbidden word/ Jewish was barely uttered in your son's house."