“Wild Geese” – A Mary Oliver Primer

Image: Wild Geese, posted at Flickr by liz west under a Creative Commons License.

In Las Lomas where I grew up and still return every Sunday morning, wild parrots wake me up, the incantation of their united screech a resonant, strangely innervating chorus. I have always felt the press of the wild more closely in Las Lomas, and it is a complicated wilderness. I have had a calamitous, giddy lifetime of loving the bush but not always loving myself there. I think Mary Oliver would have understood this. I think the work she produced proved that she did, long before I took my first steps down to the rich, uneven dirt of my family farm.

“Wild Geese”, published in 1986, is a disarming of a poem. If it were a person at the funeral of someone you love(d), it would be the stranger in the sensible shoes who makes you a cup of coffee — inexplicably, perfectly as you take it — passing it into your trembling hands without demanding you say a word. The only confession the poem asks of you is one you make to yourself, holding up the ledger of your life like a mirror scrawled with your own red-lipsticked secrets.

We see how simply Oliver begins.

“You do not have to be good.”

When James Baldwin spoke in 1984 of writing a sentence clean as a bone, this, surely, is what he meant. The poem is full of them, lines that strike deep and true to the marrow of the worst sins we’ve committed, the thousand and one minor dishonesties that take us through the day, the times we’ve struck our children after promising we never would, the divorce papers we sign while sick to the stomach, the evasions in tax and in tenderness. This poem may be the only forgiveness forthcoming. This poem may be the only opportunity for the worst we’ve done to rise to the surface, to be boiled off like frothing scum.

What an unburdening of a poem we have here, what a permitting, soothing assurance. Oliver gentles without tranquilizing, tempers without a full euthanasia of mercy. For there is still the despair of the world, at one’s doorstep; the poem makes that as plain as the balm of self-forgiveness. The cure for too much human spirit on the earth, “Wild Geese” gently, sternly proposes, might be the earth itself, unfettered of us.

Hearkening to nature is its own morality, of course — “the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain”, “the prairies and the deep trees”, “the mountains and the rivers”. Built into the poem is the subtle, yet vibrant suggestion that nature provides its own testing: after all, the cry of the wild geese above us is as harsh as it is exciting… and excitement itself is no antidote to danger. Yet, if you were to choose a way to be a more complete you, to be a you less shackled and conscripted to a desert of penance, this is the thrill you should choose, exhorts the poem.

Above all, whether your appetites are natural or nuclear, “Wild Geese” is a poem of the imagination as heroic instrument. It is the mind that will save us, or flay us. A different, as-necessary poem, Nicole Sealey’s “A Violence”, ends with:

“A body, I’ve read, can sustain
its own sick burning, its own hell, for hours.
It’s the mind. It’s the mind that cannot.”

Where do you turn, when the incendiary notion of your forced goodness threatens to kick you out of yourself? You turn to your mind. To its inviolable queendom. Even if you sicken. Even if you suffer. Even if there’s no forest for miles. Tune into yourself, and you will find as many wild geese as you desire.

give feral thanks

Give Feral Thanks: A Mary Oliver Primer runs from January 21st – 31st.

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