The Mary Oliver poem has really stayed with me since I read it in Matt's last post. It seems to exist in my mind fully formed as an image, but I think I would like to assign myself the task of memorizing it in order to learn how the lines and stanzas work to produce that image. It seems like a simple enough poem, but knowing Oliver, I am sure there are subtleties that would reward memorization.
As promised, I bring you more Updike. First, a stanza from the longer poem "The City Outside: December 11, 2008":
I'm safe! Away with travel and abrupt
perspectives! Terra firma is my ground,
my refuge, and my certain destination.
My terrors-- the flight through dazzling air, with
the blinding smash, the final black-- will be
achieved from thirty inches, on a bed.
This reads as nothing more than a man whose sentence has been handed down, the date of execution, if not set, looming. What struck me about this stanza is the forsaking of an old fear (of flying) for a new, more terrifying certainty. The fear of flying is not really a fear of flying so much as a fear of not flying, ie dying. But the fear of flying is an indulgence of the young and full of life. The remote possibility of the crash is sweet in its slimness. Now the speaker lies safely abed, yet confides that this seemingly safest of places will be the location of that most feared crash-- not from a dramatic airborne vessel, but from a humble thirty inches.
I also love the trick he plays with terra firma: ground, refuge, and my certain destination. The tone is only mildly bitter, mostly resigned. The lesson: we are none of us safe, even when we most think ourselves to be.
Now, "Fine Point: December 22, 2008" (in its entirety):
Why go to Sunday school, though surlily,
and not believe a bit of what was taught?
The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes
undoubtedly existed, and Israel's defeats--
the Temple in its sacredness destroyed
by Babylon and Rome. Yet Jews kept faith
and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites,
from table to table as Christians mocked.
We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely-- magnificent, that "surely"--
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life, my life, forever.
What a word: "surlily." And here is quite a different narrator, one that wants to hope. What's the loss, he seems to say? Why not a little make-believe to ease the darkest fears. Thus the move from surlily to surely, a wonderful rhyme, so wonderful he repeats it. The only word more wonderful is "forever," which he also repeats. It's that same story the bones (in Oliver) prefer: the one of endless good fortune. It's the same way Updike ended his short story, written in the seventies, "Pigeon Feathers." The narrator, looking at the intricacies of the feathers of the birds he has just killed, concludes by saying that surely the creator of such beauty would allow him to live forever. What a conclusion! How nonsensical. And yet, so tantalizing.
So that's what I've been thinking about. I actually wrote a new poem this week-- yay! And I've been thinking of writing one about sleeping children (no, not a spell) for some time now. But now the sleeping one is awake, so I'll sign off.