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The Inherent Buddhism in Mary Oliver’s Poetry

As embarrassing as it is to admit, I hadn’t read any of Mary Oliver’s poetry until this year. I’d heard of her, sure, but the urge to pick up one of her collections didn’t hit me until I was tucked away in bed one night during my stay in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. The fact that I even had one of her collections with me, was in and of itself some bizarre proof of divine intervention.

There’ll perhaps never be a greater memory of that trip for me than the one I have of being in the garden overlooking the entire city, surrounded by bright flowers yellow, red, and blue, the wild trees cascading leaves down heavy branches and holy statues, elegant carvings chipped and eroded and yet glorious in announcing their presence. I was reading the poem “Spring” for it was spring, I was in a garden, and it all seemed rather fitting.

This morning
two birds
fell down the side of the maple tree

like a tuft of fire
a wheel of fire
a love knot

out of control as they plunged through the air
pressed against each other
and I thought

how I meant to live a quiet life
how I meant to live a life of mildness and meditation
tapping the careful words against each other

and I thought—
as though I were suddenly spinning like a bar of silver
as though I had shaken my arms and lo! they were wings—

of the Buddha
when he rose from the green garden
when he rose in his powerful ivory body

when it turned to the long dusty road without end
when he covered his hairs with ribbons and the petals of flowers
when he opened his hands to the world

I jerked up in my seat. Wait a minute! I began to read in earnest, and the more I read the more glaringly obvious it became. What I had then discovered was… quite well documented.

Before me, there were others who read Mary Oliver’s poetry (though I’m sure not in nearly as tranquil and picturesque a place so I’m still special) and justifiably thought “Buddhist?”. The truth naturally was more complicated than that for when she was once asked about religion and spirituality Mary had said only “I’m not, though I do think ceremony is beautiful and powerful. But I’ve also met some people in organized religion who aren’t so hot. I’ve written before that God has “so many names.” To me, it’s all right if you look at a tree, as the Hindus do, and say the tree has a spirit. It’s a mystery, and mysteries don’t compromise themselves—we’re never gonna know”

The artist remains a mystery, more than happy with the unknown, and who’s to say we don’t love them for it. The question of the art itself, however, remains.

Some of my favorite poems leave little room for debate.

The god of dirt
 came up to me many times and said
 so many wise and delectable things, I lay
 on the grass listening
 to his dog voice,
 crow voice,
 frog voice; now,
 he said, and now,
 and never once mentioned forever,
which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp hoof,
 at the center of my mind. 
-         “One or Two Things” 

This burden of forever, of permanence we are all forced to carry, is evident here. The poem separated and conveys two different realities for in the first part she is lying down and listening, being mindful which turns into this concept of forever being “at the center” of her mind. This core idea of impermanence is at the center of almost all Buddhist thought, it is the now, the now that the god of dirt and buddha himself urge us to pay more attention to.

On my newly updated list of favorite poems of all time, sits her poem “In Blackwater Woods”, which through the lens of “the black river of loss” only further illustrates the precipice of nonattachment and impermanence.

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

As humans, we are always craving for connection and there is great merit in the fact that we can love so abundantly however the all-encompassing truth is that there is an inherent impermanence to all human relationships because we ourselves are impermanent. The only way to navigate the murky waters of emotions, desires, and expectations is with this ability to “let it go”. This being, naturally, the ability we struggle with the most.

Mary Oliver has an inherent Buddhism to her words because she is a naturalist at heart whose worldview consists of nature through the lens of wonder and devotion. Through nature, she has perfectly grasped the Buddhist concepts of emptiness, transiency, and impermanency and she did this all without subscribing to any particular faith.

In truth, I don’t need her to. In fact, besides the facts about her that I’ve outlined in this article, there is nothing else I know about her. A fact that I am sure she would most appreciate for Mary once called privacy “a natural and sensible attribute of paradise” and in all I read of her seemed to be a highly reclusive person. “I believe it is invasive of the work when you know too much about the writer, and almost anything is too much,” she said.

In her poetry, I see myself, my desire to be a part of the world, my ability to love and grieve impossibly “Have I not loved as though the beloved could vanish at any moment, or become preoccupied, or whisper a name other than mine in the stretched curvatures of lust, or over the dinner table?”, and over the last few months of walking in her footsteps I have gained a stronger sense of my own mortality and with it the desire to appreciate the now more and love with abandon.

“There isn’t anything in this world but mad love.  Not in this world.  Not tame love, calm love, mild love, no so-so love.  And, of course, no reasonable love.”

I don't have to wonder if that is what she meant for because she outlines everything clearly enough.

You are young.  So you know everything.  You leap

into the boat and begin rowing.  But listen to me.

Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without

any doubt, I talk directly to your soul.  Listen to me.

Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and

your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to

me.  There is life without love.  It is not worth a bent

penny, or a scuffed shoe.  It is not worth the body of a

dead dog nine days unburied.  When you hear, a mile

away and still out of sight, the churn of the water

as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the

sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable

pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth

and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls

plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life

toward it.

Toward all the danger and toward all the uncertainty because love, mad love is worth all of it and Mary Oliver has helped teach me how to let go as much as she is teaching me how to hold on.


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