Inspired by Mollusks

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by | Apr 11, 2019

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
Mary Oliver

Since Mary Oliver’s death in January, there has been an outpouring of remembrances, elegies and homages. I had not intended to add to that generous and well-deserved commentary; but then when racing out the door for a trip to Costa Rica, I was looking for a small volume of poetry to take and chose Oliver’s collection Dream Work.

I reread the book cover to cover on the flights and then for the next eight days I carried it with me everywhere, down to a mountain river, on treks through an amazing national park jungle, kayaking through mangrove waterways, climbing to swim beneath a waterfall, scrambling over ocean-wet rock to inspect tide pools and wait for a sunset. In all of these, and other places, I reread, in random order, the forty-five pieces offered by Oliver. And I was astonished. None of these poems were new to me. (My copy of Dream Work was over thirty years old—I bought it with my allowance when I was 12, you see) Some pages were dog-eared and a number of the pieces had asterisks by their titles, so that I could find them easily when I came back to the book. Now as I came back to each two, three or four times, I realized they remained new because Oliver had made them with superb and subtle craft and filled them with her ever-fresh attention.

Mary Oliver seemed to favor watery and wooded landscapes. Her poetic thinking often seemed to unwind with the walks, hikes and rambles on which she took us by the telling of them. I imagine her writing table in a late morning sun, the day’s combings from streams, or beaches or mossy forest floors on exhibit. Fern leaf, pebble, kelp, shell, wild flower, feather, seedpod: unplanned compilations fused through a keen awareness of the interconnected and unified whole as in the poem “Clamming.“

I rise
by lamplight and hurry out
to the bay
where the gulls like white

ghosts swim
in the shallows –
I rake and rake
down to the gray stones,

the clenched quahogs,
the deadweight
fruits of the sea that bear
inside their walls

a pink and salty
one-lunged life;
we are all
one family

but love ourselves
best. Later I sit
on the dawn-soaked shore and set
a thin blade

into the slightly
hissing space between
the shells and slash through
the crisp life-muscle; I put

what is in the shell
into my mouth, and when
the gulls come begging
I feed them too.

How detailed and hopeful,
how exact
everything is in the light,
on the rippling sand,

at the edge of the truing tide –
its upheaval –
its stunning proposal –
its black, anonymous roar.

“Clamming” is one of the original poems next to which I put an asterisk in my first reading of Dream Works many years ago. As a then wannabe gleaner, it inspired me to try my hands at digging for dinner in many places I would go thereafter. My success was mixed, although my admiration and attraction to edible mollusks remains undiminished. That may be why my I put another asterisk by a poem from Seamus Heaney, also many years ago, this one calling our attention to the geological layers of social disequilibrium upon which even the most convivial corners of our cultures and histories rest upon. It is from the collection Fieldwork.

Oysters

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
Alive and violated,
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.
We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.
Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege
And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.