Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer Poets: Mary Oliver

I have no idea of the religious adherence of this week’s contemporary American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Mary Oliver (b. 1935), but the first time I read her poem The Journey I was deeply impressed.

I particularly enjoy the imagery of adverse climate, terrain and time (wind, earthquake, night…). This powerfully re-imagines in natural ways what the Desert Fathers would have called ‘the demons’. These are the adverse voices that attempt to sway us off our decisions, to prevent us from making any progress in our journey of discipleship.

In particular, one of the most powerful of these voices - and the most subtle - is the one which apparently calls on our compassionate desire to make others ‘whole’.

Oliver instead reminds us – as many others have, too – that Christ did not say ‘love your neighbour before yourself’, but ‘as’ yourself. While some of us have no problem focusing on our ‘selves’, others of us devote little attention at all to the most precious gift we personally have: our lives.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.


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