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Seems to me that words have emotional lives: some retain their vibrancy; others, relegated to bone piles. That’s where revision is critical, because serious readers look for depth that resonates or challenges the human condition—at least that was what I thought until I came across the word, praise, depleted in my perception.

Yet, it appeared on the dedicatory page of Mary Oliver’s book of poems, Why I Wake Early (2004): “Lord! Who hath praise enough?” a line taken from “Providence,”composed by the priest-poet George Herbert in seventeenth-century England. Through relishing Oliver’s poems drawn from her Provincetown morning walks, I awoke to the wordlessness of praise: more an attitude toward the unfolding of creation in pristine moments than windy definition.

In Oliver’s artistic process, I sense praise empowered her co-creation with God who disciplined her senses, helped her search for apt words, then clothed revelations with simple, often one-syllable words; their explosive energy still jars her listeners, readers, and decades of fledgling writers who have sat in her classes and workshops.

Her poem, “Snow Geese”, describes such an experience: the flock, “being the color of snow, catching the sun,” their rapid flight leaving her bereft with painful/delightful longing. She concludes: “What matters/is that, when I saw them, /I saw them/as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.”

Another poem, “Look and See” concludes with heart-prayer: “Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we only look and see.”—After having been regaled by a gull’s pink foot casually scratching its stomach of white feathers as it sailed overhead.

Such gifts are always offered and elicit praise within the openhearted—but as George Herbert says, there’s never enough…

And God is always there; if you feel wounded.

He kneels over this earth like a divine medic, and His love thaws out the holy in us.

So concludes the poem, When the Holy Thaws, composed by Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582) Spanish mystic, reformer of the Carmelite Order, and author of contemplative prayer and practices.

This many centuries later, I wonder of this consoling poem reflects one of her visions with which she was gifted during her life. She knew the wounds, inflicted upon her by ecclesiastical authorities and her own nuns for the reforms she implemented among them—even founded seven monasteries for the observance of the new rule of life. She, too, given her frail health, needed solace and experienced the kneeling God as divine medic.

In my perception nothing much has really changed—only more darkness and disease have distorted our planet from its God-given path.

It’s helpful to return, in prayer, to the gift of these inspired words and let His love thaw out the holy in us. For the holy is properly our birthright and our deepest joy, even in the midst of calamities.

Questions about the timing of Mary Oliver’s last publication, Upstream, Selected Essays in 2016 caught my attention. She passed in 2018.

In these nineteen essays, two of which are original to this slim volume, she left us a life-long template of her spirited struggles. It’s as if she had unfurled gossamer threads over her troubled psyche; then wove them into a wordsmith, a solitary, a listener, a passionate observer of life’s waxing and waning, a priestess.

For whatever reasons, Mary Oliver was not safe in her childhood home or in the classroom. Such fragile beginnings are nuanced in her first essay, together with the compelling influence of her mentors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman. Only in the surrounding woods and creek outside her semi-rural Cleveland home did she find solace; it became her Temple where she pondered, wrote, and discovered who she was, what she was, and what she wanted to be in the world.

And she became that, and exquisitely so.

Her nineteen essays in Upstream reflect her affinity with whatever flies in the skies, maneuvers on the forest floor, or swims in the ocean: a black-backed gull, a snapping turtle, a common spider, among others. Her judiciously placed words illumine the depth of her exuberance; its freshness feels like the first morning of creation. Yet, the leitmotif of death shadows its élan.

Perhaps sensing her own, she must have selected each essay in Upstream, mindful of its whorl of energy enriching the one following and plunging her readers into the mystery of living life with its imponderables.

 

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