“The Whistler” – A Mary Oliver Primer

Image: The whistle, posted at Flickr by Amanjeev under a Creative Commons License. Image cropped.

Willa Cather says, “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” What might strike some as an inscrutable terror – how dare we be denied ultimate knowledge of our most intimate? – is an occasion for joy in Mary Oliver’s “The Whistler”.

The scene is tender, domestic, everyday: the speaker is reading in the upstairs bedroom, and their companion, who is downstairs, bursts into a twittering of unexpected whistles. No one is more surprised than the speaker. “It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was / in the house, what stranger?”

The quality of the companion’s birdsong is key to understanding the speaker’s response. We hear this whistling as if from “a wild and / cheerful bird, not caught but visiting”: what could be more precious code than this, for the truth of human-to-human cleaving? Not caught, but visiting. Perhaps we are happiest when we are forever in the process of visiting each other, liberally and with boundless, urgent affection. There is such an unshackled wisdom in learning you can never fully know another, not even a lover, not even a mother. It doesn’t scare our speaker. No, in fact, they listen long, because it is “finally”, some time after, when they ask, “Is that you? Is that you whistling?”

We are treated to interlocking delights in “The Whistler”. First, there is the speaker’s rapturous wow, upon hearing this companionate whistling for the first time. Secondly, we witness the companion’s own thanks, at rediscovering what she’d forgotten she could do:

“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.”

There is no hint of accusation here, no sense that one partner has denied the other a vital emotional lock, to stuff into a locket. Nothing has been concealed, and nothing is to be regretted. As in “Wild Geese” and “The Fish”, there is a gentle pedagogy here: keep yourself open to a total wilderness of unknowing. Recognize you can only ever know someone, anyone, so much, and that there’s joy in the forever-promise of discovering them anew.

You could read the last stanza of the poem as a turn toward the darkly contemplative: “do we even begin / to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with / for thirty years?” There’s a reason it’s a rom-com trope, right, the guy or girl or un/other-gendered protagonist sitting at the bar, shirtsleeves dismally crumpled, knocking back another amber tumbler of liquid, dryly moaning, “I’m just saying, you think you know someone after xx years? And then. And then…”

Call me rose-tinted, but I just don’t read the ending of “The Whistler” that way. To read it like that, I’d have to believe that Oliver intends “dark” and “lovely” to be opposite states, and I don’t. The dark is often fodder for our nightmares, our skeletal fears, but this poem is a reminder of darkness as resurrection, as rebirth. It’s in the clear, dark beauty of their companion’s whistle that a true revealing opens for the speaker. This is resurrection: a coming to life of an energy, an ability, that the companion herself thought long dead.

“Elbow and ankle- / Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic.” These have been the stations of desire at which the speaker (who we might think of as *the listener*, here) has worshipped their lifelong betrothed. These are the stopping places by which they imagined their mapping complete. Isn’t it thrilling, then, to learn the map has secret places? To learn, and to accept, that no cartography we make of another can ever be complete? There’s freedom, in that, and humility, too. There’s the making of enough room in our houses of commingling awareness and unknowing, to hum a merry tune.

give feral thanks

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

“The Fish” – A Mary Oliver Primer

Image: Lion Fish, posted at Flickr by Dave Scriven under a Creative Commons License.

I’ve seen fish being caught off the rocky outcropping of the North Coast at night. What transfixed me most was how violently, how viciously they struggled against death: it’s been years, and still, vividly, I can summon the muscular thrash of a fish torso, the rippling menace of tail sluicing seawater through the black sky, the mute outrage at being plucked from the water with a hook in its mouth. It did not go gently. Good, I thought. Good for you. 

“The Fish” frames three movements for us: first, a capture; second, a consuming; third, a symbiosis. On this tripartite structure are so many religious doctrines founded — yet see how gently, how sternlovingly, Oliver gives us an entire sacrament, a fully-infused transubstantiation, in a poem that could be scrawled on the back of a napkin. Death is everywhere in this brief ode to the absolute truth that we are who we devour: after all, the poem’s speaker doesn’t tell us this is the first *and last* fish. No, we sense, dabbing scales away from our lips with moist towelettes, this is the original fish, the prime meal.

There is nothing to regret in it, and our speaker leaves no room for remorse on the gutting table. We receive a gift, instead, as the narrator “opened his body and separated / the flesh from the bones / and ate him.” If this fish-killer grapples with internal conflict, she doesn’t share it with us, unlike the speaker in another famous poem entitled “The Fish”, by fellow late American woman poet, Elizabeth Bishop. In that poem, there is a squaring off, a metaphysical showdown between fish and woman, one that ends in release from the angler’s line:

“He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely.”

Bishop’s fish is a grizzled veteran of the tides, wearing old hooks from former tangles with death, like survivor’s jewellery. Bishop’s narrator doesn’t have the heart – or has too much heart – to put him down after a hard-won life. By contrast, who can say how old Oliver’s fish is? We know it fights, we know that it “flailed and sucked / at the burning / amazement of the air” before it perishes at the bottom of the pail. Its gradual death, in one of the poem’s most seemingly effortless lines of beauty, is “the slow pouring off / of rainbows.” All of this grappling endeavour, all of this ungently going into the good night: she who kills the fish eats every morsel, every scale and eye of experience.

This, we sense, is part of the alchemy of Oliver’s “family of things”. Specifically, it is a poem of place in the strata of that great world tree. “The Fish” is a ritual map: a promise, if you like, of what will happen when you kill, when you feed. The third movement of the poem opens the speaker, mirroring the speaker’s opening of the fish:

“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.”

We will never travel alone. That is the assurance of this poem, which it makes without sentimental overture, without any truths but the truth of a fish’s carcass, each flesh-picked bone a skeleton key of certainty. It is an examination of the sometimes-grim, sometimes-gay covenant we make with the subjects of our pain. What we kill and eat becomes part of the ledger of our living: we eat its pain, its life, its every silvery thrash in the sea. Everything we murder for our survival, we give permission to one day, cosmically, ache us right back.

give feral thanks

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

“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.