And who is this young stripling beside you, Uncle George bellows from his hospital bed in Chicago, untamed city of wind and soot. His white hair in a tousle, he sits up, surveys us, this man who terrified me as a child with his fiery preaching.
Young marrieds in the '50s, we stand beside his rumpled bed above the traffic on Michigan Avenue, sirens echoing. In this city my husband is studying the body's diseases while I read Hamlet and King Lear, both of us seeking cures.
Lear cries "Howl, howl, howl!" Surgeon enters with his sharpest knife, pours medicine that kills before it heals. No rescue without nakedness, Shakespeare writes, Lear fumbling the button at Cordelia's throat, all of us leaning into the final word, mercy.
Onion skin, they called those thin pages in our Bibles, translucent and strong. Finger smudge at the edges, pages shining over the layers that wait for understanding. After decades I taste them new, the onion sliced raw, tang of earth in my mouth.
Book of leaves, a tree in our house. My father brings it to the table. Before oatmeal and bread, the words like seeds drop down into a damp place. “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away,” blessed be the leaves turning in his hand.
My children, bathed and fragrant, lean against my shoulders as I read. They listen to the Shepherd who calls to them, who walks the edge of a cliff. They smell the burning bush, huddle with me as the glory passes over, as I cover them with these paper wings.
The stories walk out the door with us— Joseph dreaming, Ruth gleaning, Jesus in a boat, Jesus wearing thorns. Sometimes he gazes like a lion, stares down the marble aisles of churches through glass angels, out to the ruins we have made.
One red satin ribbon marks the place, cord of God’s desire for us sewn to the spine of the text. No matter where the scarlet falls, no matter which chapter or verse, it is relentless in pursuit, the prophets stumbling behind us, weeping and singing, the blind man seeing.
Veins in the leaves are traceries of Hebrew and Greek, hidden and sweet, stories from which we begin again. I smell roots and eat. “Blessed are those planted by the river.” I will sleep in threads of silk, for I have eaten the Book, and one day will emerge with wet wings lifting toward the white lilies.
Winter dawn pinks even this dirty air, here where the currents of the world stall between mountain ranges. We awaken inhaling fumes and dust, the calls of crows, breath and prayers from around the globe.
A child in church, I knelt with the congregation, leaned into the wails of women around me pleading for the son lost to Chicago, for Hiroshimo’s victims, the girl with the iron lung. They would begin on a pitch around middle C and slowly rise with arched phrases into a high tremolo toward the amen, as though reaching to heaven.
Now the sun tears the gray veil, and doves repeat their soft, low moaning, for heaven is nearer than we think—in the undersides of leaves and in their shine, warmth on my shoulder, scent of bread. Even in that sick, black night when a man stood in the center of the lane, his arms out, pleading for the headlights to come in, as we stood beside him, now in a silent heap, his boots flung off, as we breathed “mercy,” as we breathed “help.”
One of Mary Oliver's supreme gifts is her ability to find language for rapture as she responds to nature and our place within it. Even as she gazes into putrid swamps and the brutal food chain, she finds beauty and light. She explores and celebrates the mystery of our deaths. With her precise imagery, Oliver transposes the chaos of death's threat into a world of symmetry and amazement.
Fig tree dominates the garden, gray and knobby against gray fog, its bare branches grotesque. Like the old, bent parishioners my father would visit, taking me along, a child. They stroked my hands, my woolen dress, reached out with cloudy eyes.
This tree reaches everywhere, as though light can be caught. Slow sun drains through, stirs a wing. Then one morning I see them, green tips of figs hard as emeralds escaping from every knuckled grasp.
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