Conundrum Press

Cold, With Swan

January 17th, 2014  |  Published in Blog

Today we have an essay from Michael J. Henry–poet, teacher, biker, Executive Director of Lighthouse Writers Workshop–on the poet Mary Oliver. Included at the end of the post is a poem from his collection No Stranger Than My Own. His second collection of poetry, Active Gods, will release Spring 2014 from Conundrum Press.

Visit Michael’s blog or check out some workshop classes offered by Lighthouse Writers Workshop. And don’t forget to swing by Lighthouse this Saturday at 7pm for a reading from David Rothman! (And a chance to meet the illustrious Mike Henry.)

Cold, With Swan

by Michael J. Henry

I just finished up teaching a class on Mary Oliver, who’s one of a handful of poets making a living from writing. Her work is admirably spare, simple, and melodic. Like another handful of poets, I’d say that she’s as much a philosopher as a poet, and therefore her work is primarily natural and spiritual—a talent I marvel at. She asks lots of big questions, and isn’t too concerned about the answers, almost like a contemporary American monk might. Whatever a contemporary American monk might be–I’ll leave that definition up to you.

I admire her poems and I appreciate them, but I’m not totally in love with all of her work. I don’t mean that in a negative way. She’s an amazing writer. And perhaps the lessons she embraces are the ones I need to embrace, too, and I’m reticent about doing so. Who knows?

Many of her poems involve walks through a natural landscape–most often around the environs of Provincetown, Massachusetts. She draws inspiration and a deep sense of communion from those woods and sandy dunes, much like I draw inspiration from the Colorado landscape. She asks many questions, which are much like the questions that occur to me when I’m out in the mountains, hiking, biking, drinking beer (but never at the same time, of course).

I suppose from her I need to learn this one truth: it’s okay not to have the answers, but to linger in the questions.

As she writes: “What is it you plan to do with your one precious life?” in “The Summer Day.

If I can do that, then maybe I can be—as someone who often writes about my experience in the mountains—a true Colorado sage. (I’ll just need to make sure I don’t trip over my priestly robes and break my nose, I guess.)

Here’s a good example of a quintessential Oliver poem–ending with more questions than answers.

THE SWAN

Across the wide waters
something comes
floating—a slim
and delicate

ship, filled
with white flowers—
and it moves
on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist,
as though bringing such gifts
to the dry shore
was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
And now it turns its dark eyes,
it rearranges
the clouds of its wings,

it trails
an elaborate webbed foot,
the color of charcoal.
Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
when that poppy-colored beak
rests in my hand?
Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company—
he is so often
in paradise.
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those
white wings
touch the shore?

***

And here’s a poem from Michael Henry himself–which presents unanswered questions in a very Oliver-esque way–from his collection No Stranger Than My Own.

ODE TO THE PACIFIERS

Let those scorn you who never
Starved in your dearth
—Robert Pinsky

Comfort elixir, sleep-dozer, quiet-plug,
O how you have saved me,
O how you have buttoned and plugged
those grumpy weary O mouths,
O how you have waved sadnesses
away and made darkness a time for dreams.
Mam, Nuk, The First Years—3317,
molded in Austria, Germany, Taiwan, Philippines,
you are the juicy bait from which I catch
my babyfishes, pull them out of their ocean
of cry and fuss, gently drop them
into the hold in the hull of our house,
where they drift, the new cells
which I have half-made.
Your swallow-guard, hip cradles
under nose, your end a knob
that turns off the volume,
sometimes with a handle
like a purse-strap, your business end
a tan flexible light bulb, fake nipple,
idea bubble, bald man’s mini-head, dirigible,
future tooth crookener—they sometimes say,
but really? I do love you so,
I have worshipped you, genuflected to you
even though you weave dust and fibers
and momma-hair around
your saliva-slick end,
even though you always disappear,
falling and scattering like a mouse
under counters, car tires, beds,
into heating vents, garbage disposals,
et cetera, et cetera.
Though I have never French-kissed
you clean, I will never accuse you
of badness. But I do
worry, some nights when I can’t sleep,
nights they are with you: who will someday
coddle them, what will they suckle
if they end up on dark streets
with cruisers, sharks, and other bad
men, my girls gazing into locked storefronts,
their shoelaces untied,
fingernails dirty and uncut, their bodies—
skin and bone that I have so
carefully wrought—grimy and cold?

***

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