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A lovely poem about small kindnesses.
“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
28 July 2019
Today we conclude our series based on the poems of Mary Oliver, who died in January. And we are concluding with one of her most popular poems, “Wild Geese.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Krista Tippett, the host of the radio show On Being, described this poem “Wild Geese” as “a poem that has saved lives.” What does she mean?
I found one example online written by a biochemist named Brandon Taylor as he described the effect of the poem upon him:
For a long time, I felt unworthy of the world. For great periods of my life, I still feel unworthy of the world. This is not an uncommon state. Worthiness is the chief subject of the poem, to me. The speaker, in an act of breathtaking generosity, offers the reader, no matter how lowly or afield they have found themselves, an opportunity to reenter the world. There is an entreaty to follow the natural grain of one’s character, to heed one’s desire. There is no need to repent, to apologize, to make amends for how one is. . . . The source of all of this acceptance and love is in the beauty of the world as it is. The rain. The geese in their flight. And at the end, one is offered a place, not in the world of people, but in the kingdom of things, a haunting reminder of the scope and presence of nature.
I feel worthy of being in the world when I think of “Wild Geese.” I feel that the world has use for me, that there is a place for me in the world that is vaster and greater and eternal.
And so this poem is quite popular; it comforts and inspires people. But there is more to it than one might realize on a first read.
Shortly after Mary Oliver’s death, Jeanna Kadlec wrote a piece for Lit Hub pointing out the power of Mary Oliver as a queer poet and particularly the queer perspective in this popular poem “Wild Geese,” a perspective often missed by readers. Kadlec wrote:
“Wild Geese” is distinctly, uniquely queer. In the poem, the speaker gives the reader permission to inhabit their body: to be present in it, to know and own what they want without shame. Harder to do than it sounds, as any queer can tell you.
Kadlec wrote about growing up an Evangelical who later in life had to learn that she could desire within her own body. Since I grew up a Southern Baptist gay kid, I can identify with that statement.
Kadlec wrote, “’Wild Geese,’ and so many other poems, are about allowing ourselves the permission to be fully present in our bodies and their incumbent desires.” She then drew this connection to queer life:
This world, still, would diminish and constrain and limit and imprison and even kill gay and lesbian and trans and bisexual and queer people, simply for occupying our bodies in a way as honest as the otters and birds that Oliver observed on her walks through the woods and beaches of Provincetown. Don’t be afraid of its plenty, she says of love. Joy is not made to be a crumb. [sic]
What a delight that America’s most beloved and best-selling poet of recent decades, a writer widely embraced for her spirituality, who was described as the favorite poet of Christian ministers, was in fact a lesbian. And a lesbian who wrote with erotic passion about her lover. Such as this excerpt from “The Gardens,”
shall I touch you
unless it is
here and there,
the heart within you,
and the animal,
and the voice.
In the late 1950’s Mary Oliver was staying at Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which drew writers and artists, when one day she walked into the kitchen and saw the photographer Molly Malone Cook sitting at the table. Oliver described the moment, “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.”
Oliver and Cook were together for more than forty years. They lived much of that time in Provincetown, Massachusetts, known as a gay mecca. They ran a bookshop together there and each pursued her art. Oliver learned much from Cook that affected her poetry. She wrote, “M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles.”
When Cook died of cancer in 2005 at the age of eighty, Oliver produced a book entitled Our World which combined Cook’s photographs with Oliver’s writing. A true testament of love and devotion. In that book, Oliver wrote of the surprising ways one can spend a lifetime with someone and still not fully know them. This is best expressed in the poem “The Whistler.”
All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.
Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she
said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.
I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and ankle-
Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
for thirty years?
This clear, dark, lovely whistler?
Jeanna Kadlec points out that Oliver is best known as a nature poet, but she also wrote about what it means to “love and learn one woman for nearly half a century.” What it means to pay attention not just to birds and rivers but to the body one loves. Kadlec continues, “There is a consistent affirmation in Oliver’s poetry that we are worthy of our lover’s time, effort, gratitude. This is the queer erotic: the validation of our bodies as worthy of attention, of desire, of sex.”
Consider these lines from the poem “The Plum Trees,”
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy
is a taste before
it’s anything else, and the body
can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,
the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
into the body first, like small
According to Kadlec,
Oliver’s eroticism is more visible to the queer reader, who knows that queerness isn’t just about queer sex: it is a fundamentally individual way of looking at the world. To queer is to break down—to destroy—the structures that would limit or bar or imprison us, and to rethink or even replace them.
Of course this June was the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, a key turning point in the struggle for LGBTQ civil rights. I was away on vacation that weekend, camping out with my husband and son. Michael and I had some melancholy that we weren’t at one of the big gay pride festivals or parades occurring all over the country. But we also felt a sense of liberated accomplishment that here we were, a queer family, living our lives. Surely that was its own celebration of what Stonewall and the gay pride movement have meant.
Christianity has long been responsible for the oppression of sexual and gender minorities. This resulted from some deep theological mistakes. Christian theology has often struggled with embracing the human body, sexuality, and desire. This is a legacy of St. Augustine and other early thinkers.
But history didn’t have to be that way. One of our core teachings is that God inhabited a human body, becoming fully flesh and experiencing all that it means to be human, and thereby transfiguring human bodies into divine bodies. These teachings are the more ancient heritage of Christianity. And in recent decades, sometimes led by queer scholars and theologians, the church has reawakened to its own ideas and has come to more fully embrace desire, sexuality, and the body.
And so we hold Mary Oliver as an example. A queer religious poet who taught us that we love God by loving what God has created. That includes rivers, whales, plums, and geese. And also bodies. Our own bodies and the bodies of those we love. We can in fact draw closer to God by desiring and loving each other.
That remains a healing, liberating, life-saving message. A good news for us, as God’s people, to proclaim.
Let me conclude with one elegy I saw posted by an ordinary fan on Facebook. It said, “Mary Oliver a quiet pioneer, a queer icon, a brave poet, and a beautiful human. Thank you for everything you gave to us.” Amen.
“At the River Clarion” by Mary Oliver
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
21 July 2019
Last week I spent beside a river. The North Loup River, to be exact. I was at Kamp Kaleo, our United Church of Christ campground here in Nebraska, for Faith and Fine Arts Camp. I was teaching the writing group.
The first morning, I was awake early and so I wondered down to a bench beside the river and watched the sunrise play off the fast flowing water. The river was high, from all the spring and summer rains. All the sandbars were covered and the banks were not exposed. The river was rushing by on its journey through the Sandhills.
Later in the week we tubed on the river, always a joyful experience. The high point was either shooting some mild rapids, when I squealed with childish glee, or when we rounded a bend and there was a big, red, Angus bull standing in the river. We all promptly paddled our tubes to the other side. Fortunately, the bull seemed confused but not alarmed at the loud tubers floating by.
Back in June I also spent some time beside another river. Our family camped at Pike’s Peak State Park in northeastern Iowa. Yes, there is another Pike’s Peak than the tall mountain in Colorado. Apparently explorer Zebulon Pike enjoyed naming places after himself.
This Pike’s Peak is a tall hill along the Mississippi River that overlooks the confluence with the Wisconsin River. Our first night we walked to the overlook and were stunned by the natural beauty—the rich green forested hillsides, the many islands dotting the river at that point, the sunlight on the water. Over the next four days I walked to that overlook two or three times a day and every single time the view and the river were different—the light changed, the colors were shifted--sometimes dominated by blue and another time by pink—and then the final morning a thick fog blocked any view of the river below. Standing at the overlook I felt as if I was in the Caspar David Friederich painting Wanderer above a Sea of Fog.
According to Lauren Krauze, “[Mary] Oliver’s work often invites readers—by way of her own example—to gaze upon their grief, despair, and loneliness.”
Krauze continues, “but she does not belabor those aspects. Instead, her words encourage readers to turn toward something larger. This shift in focus from an intimate, personal experience to the interconnected movements of the wider world appears throughout her work as an element that seems both elemental and mystical.”
That occurs here in the poem “At the River Clarion.” Oliver, sometime after the death of her wife and more immediately to this poem, the death of her dog Luke, sits on a rock in the river in order to grieve and in her grief she listens to the river so that she might learn from it. “We do not live in a simple world,” she writes.
Death and suffering and pain grieve and afflict us. Mary Oliver is right to teach us both to gaze at these realities and then also how to live with them.
Consider these lines from “I Go Down to the Shore,”
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
Or these lines from the poem “Flare,”
There is a graveyard where everything I am talking about is,
I stood there once, on the green grass, scattering flowers.
The poem “Flare,” from which these lines come, is partly about her parents. She grew up in a “dark and broken” home where her father abused her. She writes of her father as “a demon of frustrated dreams” and “a breaker of trust.” She writes of her anger, her refusal to carry her parents’ baggage forward, of crying out with the voice of child in misery, disappointment, and terror.
And yet, she closes the poem,
When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before . . .
Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves. . . .
Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
How could she do this? How did she survive her trauma, find healing and wholeness, and become an inspiration for others. In a profile from The New Yorker, Ruth Franklin writes, “Walking the woods, with Whitman in her knapsack, was her escape from an unhappy home life.”
She learned to pay attention to nature, to listen. In the poem “At the River Clarion” she wrote, “all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.” In “I Go down to the Shore” the sea speaks to her grief. Throughout her poetry she hears the creatures of the natural world speaking to her and she learns from them.
In the poem “Hearing of Your Illness” about her fellow poet James Wright, she writes of lying down in a field near a “black creek and alder grove” and talking to them about his illness and coming death. She writes,
I felt better, telling them about you.
They know what pain is, and they know you,
And they would have stopped too, as I
was longing to do, everything, the hunger
and the flowing.
That they could not--
merely loved you and waited
to take you back . . .
was what I learned there, so I
got up finally, with a grief
worthy of you, and went home.
Debra Dean Murphy writes that this intimacy with the created world is “in keeping with the kinship of creaturehood described in the opening lines of the Bible.” And she quotes theologian Douglas Christie on the contemplative life:
The capacity and willingness to become small, to acknowledge the primacy of the living world, to open oneself completely to the life of the world, and to do so without any aim beyond the simple pleasure of the gesture itself: such unselfconscious simplicity and innocence can become the foundation of a more responsive and reciprocal way of being in the world.
One of the oldest of human questions is “Where is God when we suffer?” Mary Oliver is not a philosopher or theologian; she develops no robust theodicy, no logical defense of the goodness of God in the face of human suffering. No, she is a mystic, who provides no final or sufficient answer to this question; “I don’t know who God is exactly,” she writes.
Instead she speaks to us by her example. She models a type of life that gazes at our suffering and yet finds a measure of healing by listening to the natural world. For by listening, she encounters God.
Jason Oliver wrote in the review America, that Mary Oliver is a type of panentheist, which he characterizes as “her ability to see God in all things and all things in God. In a spider under a stairwell and a favorite pond, the flowers along the beach . . . , a cleaning woman in an airport bathroom and a young man with a gift for constructing with lumber but not with language, Oliver sought and saw revelation. It is this quality that gives her work the luster of the eternal.”
In “At the River Clarion” she encounters God in everything—in the river, in butter, the lilly, the forest, the leaf of grass, but also the ghetto, the dying ice caps, the hands of those desperately preparing their weapons, and the tick that killed her beloved dog Luke. She writes,
Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
For her, consolation arrives in discovering God all around us.
Mary Oliver teaches us—in the midst of our grief, if we but listen, we can hear God speaking to us. And so the poem ends,
And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice
So, find your river this week. Find your place to sit and listen. For only if you listen, can you hear God speaking.
“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
7 July 2019
On January 17 of this year, Mary Oliver, America’s most beloved poet, died. Oliver was not only the nation’s most popular poet, she was also a deeply spiritual writer. Her collected works, for instance, is entitled Devotions.
And so last winter Katie and I decided that in Oliver’s memory, we wanted to spend a month of worship focused on her poetry and the spiritual and theological ideas it conveys. We launch that series today, with this, one of Oliver’s most popular poems, “The Summer Day.”
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
In a 2017 article in The Christian Century entitled “Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems,” Debra Dean Murphy wrote, “Oliver’s poems are not religious in a classic sense, but they do have designs on their readers. They are occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight.”
For example, here’s a segment of a poem entitled “Humpbacks” about whale watching off the coast of Cape Cod.
We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky--
like nothing you’ve ever imagined--
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
Yes, Oliver’s poems are a summons to wonder and delight, and there is a deep theological connection to this idea. As Debra Dean Murphy points out, “the gift of wonder, of a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the [image of God], to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.”
The summons to wonder and delight is a summons to be more fully human, to be more like God, to fulfill our calling.
Which is why I paired today’s poem with the eighth psalm, that lyric to the glories of humankind. The God who created all things has made even us, with mindful attention and care. We are crowned with glory and honor and given power and dominion. God desires that we flourish.
A key theme in my own theology and in my preaching is this idea of living our best lives. It is contained in the ancient Christian idea that “the glory of God is a humanity fully alive,” and the reformed idea that the chief end of humanity is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever,” and the claim about the resurrection that we Christians “are the eternal beginners.”
But in the last couple of years I’ve been reading more about trauma and resilience. One of the things so many writers in trauma studies tell us is that the traumatized person continues to carry their wounds with them. That some possibilities at human flourishing are forever cut off.
Maybe Mary Oliver helps us to connect these two disparate themes. For all the inspirational quotes drawn from her writings, they acknowledge darkness. The dangers and violence of the natural world. And the great harms inflicted by human beings. As a child she was sexually abused by her father. In 2005 her spouse of over forty years, Molly Malone Cook, died of cancer. Pain and suffering are themes of Oliver’s poetry. Consider, “The Fish.”
The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain,
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.
So, how does a woman who experienced pain and trauma end up writing inspirational poetry that summons us to wonder and delight?
By teaching us to pay attention.
The primary spiritual and human practice revealed in Mary Oliver’s writing is to “pay attention.” For instance, it’s there explicitly in the final line of her essay “Upstream”—“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Debra Dean Murphy writes that Oliver’s poems point “readers to the gift of presence—reminding us, in poems that are often deceptively simple, of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment.” She teaches us to attend to our natural world and the myriad creatures and happenings around us. She also teaches us to attend to our own inner states, our physical bodies, and the body of our beloved. We cannot begin to wonder at or to love that which we have not noticed, carefully.
We notice this in the poem “The Summer Day” when she draws our attention not to grasshoppers in general but to a particular grasshopper, the one in her hand. She can speak with affection for it because she has taken the time to attend to it.
Which makes her a powerful poet of our time, when we can be so easily distracted. Franklin Foer wrote about this in The Atlantic after Mary Oliver’s death.
In the age of surveillance capitalism, the biggest corporations redirect the gaze, exploiting the psyche’s vulnerabilities for profit. Even silenced phones light up with notifications that break eye contact and disrupt concentration. YouTube plays videos in an endless loop, queued on the basis of intimate data, so that the emotional rush of one clip stokes the desire to watch the next. Facebook, the ultimate manipulation machine, arrays information to exploit the psychic weaknesses of users, with the intent of keeping them on its site for as long as it can. The hand touches the phone upon waking, even before it can rub the eye or reach across the bed to wake the spouse.
He pointed out that Oliver herself was not directly criticizing these developments, but her writings teach us to live differently.
What are we going to do with our “one wild and precious life?”
Will we be distracted? Will we fail to enjoy the world God created? Will we miss a chance to love and be loved?
Or will we heed the “summons to wonder and delight” by attending to what is before us at any given moment? And thereby fulfill our call “to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the [image of God]?”
I wrote my church column on the Walt Whitman bicentennial, which is this Sunday. So click on the link for my reflections on reading Whitman.