"Observing with Passion"

In 1964, I started keeping a notebook of phrases, poems, and parts of books that I like. Needless to say, I have filled notebooks and still have little pieces of paper sticking out of books and tucked away in drawers. Years ago, I copied a poem by Mary Oliver called When Death Comes. I was particularly struck by this verse,

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

I like the idea of being "married to amazement".

When Winter Hours: A Book of Prose and Prose Poems by Oliver came across my desk, I had to read it.

One of the first things to strike me about her writing is how she sees, observes, notices -- and the quality of her sight. As I read further, I was on high alert to watch for more signs of seeing and sight. She says of other writers and thinkers, "Thus the great ones have taught me... -- to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always care-ingly."

Describing her own methods, she says, "I walk and I notice.  I am sensual in order to be spiritual. I look into everything without cutting into anything."

Another pleasure of this book is the essays on Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Mary Oliver is a close observer and reader. In her meditation on Poe, she states,"In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us. This is Poe's real story. As it is ours. And this is why we honor him, why we are fascinated far past the simple narratives. He writes about our own inescapable destiny."

One of the reasons that Mary Oliver is attracted to the poet Robert Frost is that, "There is everywhere in Frost a sense that a man has time to look at things, to think and to feel." She writes a whole essay on Frost's two different messages, "everything is all right, say the metre and the rhyme, everything is not all right, say the words."  She feels that Frost writes of play and pleasure, wonder, reason and hope, "But the great height is not there. The sharp spilling of the soul into the whistling air- the pure spine-involved and organ-attached bliss - is not there."

Her own prose is often poetic:

"The storm comes on an incoming tide; it therefore grows in power for the six hours of flashing tumble and shove toward us…. Indeed, what such fetch and wind in the rising tide do to the water of the surface is beautiful and dreadful. It shines, for the clouds are thin and racing by, and the light alters from gray to steel to a terrible flashing, a shirred, swarming surface."

Who can resist such stirring sentences!