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."
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.
Well, the truth is that I wish I could live those years again, and enter into the presence of those live performances that meant so much to me. But I do not need to suffer the absence of their voices: technology, while it has invented some horrendous things, can claim much good magic also. So I can hear Tebaldi again. I can hear Dylan Thomas telling in his wondrous voice about a long-ago Christmas day. I can hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaiming that he had seen the promised land. What if that voice had vanished irretrievably-- I think we would feel by that much less the long struggle up the mountain. As in history, as in art, so in life. Oh, what if one had no kept record of the voice of someone loved and now gone? What an extra dish of sorrow that would be.
For there is something heard in the actual voice that cannot be accrued from the printed page, though we read with care and excitement, even with a real falling-into-it passion. There is simply no "connect" as there is between listener and speaker. That, at its best, is almost touch. Nuances unfelt on the page hang in the air. So. Though I am an old-fashioned sort of person, who knows only the kind of blackberries that grow on bushes (for which my friends berate me), I can't deny my own joy and appreciation at the salvation of voices otherwise vanished into the unknowable darkness.
Therefore, this second CD. I join the world. And ponder this fantasy sometimes-- that one day technology will find a place in the dark air and bring back to us the voices of Keats, Shelley, Whitman, Emerson, Li Po, Rumi, Homer-- anyone anyone wants to hear. Who knows. . .