In the high summer of my thirteenth year on this lovely planet I was mailed to Boy Scout summer camp in a sprawling forest For a life term, though I guess it was really only fourteen days. I was muddled at woodcraft as I was at everything else then, And finished very nearly last in tracking, swimming, canoeing, Archery, and orienteering, this last an utter conundrum for me; I recall my patrolmates finally gently taking away my compass And asking me to just sit quietly until they would lead me back To our camp, my spectacles knocked awry by jeering branches. I remember when we got our orienteering assignment someone Would lead me to a little open knoll in the rippling sea of pines And oaks and maples and I would sit there happily in the broad Sun for hours, I guess, watching for birds and speculating about Lunch. I wonder now that the Flying Eagle Patrol was so gentle To me, its most useless member, and these were the years when Boys are cruel to each other, for fear of being least and weakest; But they were kind, and I remember their totally genuine delight When I earned my single merit badge, for making both a roaring Fire and a stew. I remember their faces, around that startling fire, How they laughed—not at me for having finally done something Well, but at the surprise of it; the gift of unexpectedness, perhaps. Or maybe they were smiling at my probably hair-raising stew; but They ate every scrap of it, and the one among us who was best in The woods was the Eagle who quietly washed the pots and plates. Perhaps, all these years later, I should remember my helplessness, And either chew my liver or try to smile ruefully, but it's the pots Clean as a whistle that I remember, and the whistling of the Eagle Coming to retrieve me from my knoll high above the seas of trees.
Down in the basement folding the laundry, towels first to trim the pile, I realize that I have lived in this house now precisely as long as I lived On Gregory Avenue, seventeen years! and that warm little house leaps Into my memory: the ping-pong table where dad laid out the Catholic Journalist, and the hammering of his typewriter in his ostensible study; The bright yellow kitchen even the radio painted yellow who did that?; The gargantuan fan upstairs; the raft of small boys; the alpine staircase; The rocks and stones in the yard stolen from national parks everywhere; The maple tree that rocketed up next to the garage and is tipping it over; The sweetgums that provided so many thousands of tiny prickly bullets; The massive pipe by the furnace that has brained many an unsuspecting Soul, many of them more than once; the workbench, with another radio, And the lean white pantry for hurricane supplies; a grandmother's room Where once there was a grandmother, stern and sweet and then returned To the Mercy. The days after grandma died, our mom must have paused Down in the basement, standing by the dryer, holding her mom's towels Against her face, hauling in the fading elegant holy redolence before she Dries her eyes and plunges into the alps of kids' stuff. Maybe our house Is always our house even after we leave and someone else is memorizing The splay of the kitchen so you can get a sandwich at two in the morning Without waking up the baby. Maybe if your home is always in your head You can always live there. Maybe that is one of the ways we live forever.
Discovered a few moments ago that my sister, my sole sister, The sister I have admired for more than fifty years, the sister Who rocked my cradle with her toe as she did her homework, The sister who was never especially leery of punching us out When she felt we deserved it which I have to say yes we did, This sister has a name I never ever heard before this morning. Dechi Palmo she is called in the Tibetan Buddhist monastery She graces. Depa for short, she says cheerfully, on the phone. I know where that phone is, the only one in all the monastery. It's hanging on the wall outside the kitchen where she works, When she is not teaching, or praying, or meditating, or every One of the thousand other tasks she does silently and smiling. It means Happiness Glorious Woman, she says, or Happiness Glorious She Who Meditates. I nearly faint with seething joy. Sometimes, not all that often, but more than we maybe admit, Things line up exactly right, all hilarious and wild and bright, And you see a thing just as it really is, deep in its holy bones. You think that's never going to happen again but then it does. You can't command it, you can't make it stay, you cannot do Much of anything except slouch there grinning and mystified, It turns out, but to be occasionally grinning and mystified, ah!
Two questions for today: First, why read poetry? I mean, really—who cares? Who has the time, not to mention coin, when you could be reading tremendous novels and stunning essays? And second, what is great poetry?
Wouldn't it be great if one of the world's best travel writers, after
60 years and fortysome books, went back through her work and notes and
plucked out hundreds of haunting, revelatory, shimmering moments— brief
encounters that "have been sparks of my work," she might say, "if often
only in glimpses—a sighting through a window, a gentle snatch of sound,
the touch of a hand . . . fleeting contacts [that] have fuelled my
travels down the years, generated my motors, excited my laughter and
summoned my sympathies."
The second son, having made the school baseball team, Informs his startled father that they are underequipped In the matter of bats—sticks, hammers, the implements Of destruction, the tools of the trade, the thunder lumber, As the salesman says cheerfully. There is a dense forest Of bats against the wall, gleaming graphite and brilliant Maple, aluminum in every conceivable shade and sheen, And the father gets absorbed in the names, the Torpedos And Thunderclubs, Phantoms and Cyclones, the Patriots And Nitros, Magnums and Maxxums, Rayzrs and Ultras, And, rivetingly, the Freak, which comes in thirteen sizes, Which makes you wonder. The father, a terrible baseball Player as a boy, admires but does not say anything about The extraordinary lean loveliness of the ash bats hanging Lonely at the far end. The boy chooses a bright red metal Hammer, takes a few swings, waggles it a bit, hoists it up On his shoulder, says this'll do, and the sacramental hour Passes, as all holy moments must. But they do happen, as Fast and terrifying as a baseball fired right at your noggin. The batter's job, the second son says, is to identify a pitch As soon as it leaves a pitcher's hand. Seeing is everything, He says, and for once we are in complete and utter accord
Sat by the river for a long time making sure it was still working. There’s a pile of finches in the currants stuffing themselves silly. This one finch slurped so many berries he could hardly get aloft. He sort of lurched off the branch and lumbered into the holy air. It seemed like the other finches were razzing him but maybe not. He fell toward the river like a huge currant covered with feathers. You have to grin at the greedy green thrilled persistence of it all, You know what I mean? Because there are finches in the bushes, Exactly so. What could ever be a more eloquent prayer than that?
Rarely do you get to use sweeping words like epic and masterpiece and staggering, or to say that a book will be in print in America as long as there is an America, but here I fling these claims around with confidence.
Why do we expect more than one terrific book from a writer? Isn’t one superb book enough? Razzing Frank McCourt for making cheerful, thin books that aren’t Angela’s Ashes and ragging Ken Kesey for all the later muck that wasn’t One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest—isn’t that unfair?
The work of Mary Oliver is one of those rare and lovely convergences. She is a lyric artist with a riveted eye and an enormous heart, one of the nation’s great spiritual sentinels. She was also graced for more than 40 years with the love of her life, the late photographer Molly Malone Cook.
They can laugh about foxhole religion but every front line soldier embraces a little religion and are not ashamed to pray. When you face death hourly and daily you can’t help but believe in Divine Guidance. My faith in God has increased a thousand fold. He has pulled me thru when nothing else could.”
There are some writers—a handful, a very few—who by looking intently and penetratingly at one place reveal piercing things about all places and all people, and so paradoxically they are the very antithesis of regional writers. Among them: Faulkner on Mississippi, Walker Percy on Louisiana, Steinbeck on California—and Alice McDermott on Irish Catholic New York.
Let’s cut to the chase here. David Duncan, who is best known for his exuberant novels The River Why and The Brothers K, is one of the finest writers of spiritually minded essays in these United States.
You enter through a door in the back where a big sign says All Prisoners Must Be Shackled. New prisoners are admitted at seven in the evening. There are seven men waiting by the door tonight. Five are white and two are brown. The youngest might be 20, the oldest 60. Four have plastic grocery bags with their personal effects, and one has a brown paper bag.
Let us briefly recount the career of one of the most interesting and spiritually minded of American writers. Nine books of fiction, including a searing arrow of a novella, The Shawl, which ranks with Primo Levi’s haunted memoirs when we talk about books on the Holocaust.