Kundalini Splendor

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Mary Oliver, Medicine Woman 

For a very long time I, like so many others, have loved the poems of Mary Oliver. She is a true descendent of Emerson and Whitman, a lover of nature and the world even in times when the outlook is bleak. The literature of the twentieth-century focused conspicuously on the themes of isolation and despair. To forego despair was almost literary suicide, for such an attitude did not match the prevalent notions that only the naive writer could be affirming and give expression to joy.

In the midst of such widespread disillusionment and bitterness, Mary Oliver dared to write poems of the heart, offering songs of exultation in her own beautifully crafted verses. Nature is, of course, her great theme. And, as I observed her reading in San Francisco last week, I felt the perhaps I had discovered why.

As so often happens when I stare intently on a speaker or performer, I saw her "change" into someone other. Suddenly it was not Mary Oliver I was looking at, but a tribal woman, someone with a fuller body than Mary herself. She wore ceremonial dress and headdress, and was obviously a woman of wisdom and power. I was not sure of her exact origin, but I felt she was connected to some early northern band, although I was not certain of the continent. At first I thought it was Asia, then I realized it could be some ancient tribe of the far regions of North American or Europe.

So when Mary revealed to us that even as a high school student, she played truant, preferring to roam the hills and forests rather than to sit in a stuffy classroom, I felt that her "past life" might offer some clues. One so attuned to nature as she had been in her native role would not easily accept the constraints of "civilized" society. She would again seek out the sacred universe of living things, and renew her powerful bond.

In this life, she has beautifully combined her love of nature with her command of language to give us something very precious. She is herself an amazing being, daring to speak her mystical vision in our time of widespread skepticism and disdain.

Thank you, Mary Oliver, for being in our world and for having the courage to speak your truth. Your rewards and universal acclaim are well deserved.

My friend Michael Black accompanied me to the reading, and I thought his response was quite insightful:

And speaking of gifting, Dorothy called and invited me to join her and several other friends in a rare appearance by Mary Oliver. The evening was exquisite. Oliver's poetry packed its usual vibrant power, and sitting face to face with her, she is a rare gem of an individual. Her presence is formidable, but in a soft kind of way. Dorothy, I believe you referred to her as "crusty," if I recall that one correctly? Salty, too, from the P-town looks of it.

I was fascinated by her walking the same paths, day in, and day out, and seeing more clearly the splendor of what lay underfoot. Wedding her Ohio origins with the New England landscape creates a fascinating hybridization. Oliver's capacity to see clearly, succinctly and to capture with words the essence of things is beautiful.

She also revealed, in a question, that she has joined the ranks of the Episcopal Church, the latter apparently serving as a safe haven for her transcendental mysticism.

Mostly what I am left with is the impression of a highly original mind/being that doesn't shirk their responsibility to see clearly and reflect back the magnificence of the world

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