ColumnConscious life, hear me roar.
Poet Mary Oliver took on hero status for me when I was 24, living in Portland, Oregon, and in the only “bad” relationship I have ever had. What always comes as a complete surprise to me is that I was introduced to the poet through him. He was a law student at Lewis & Clark College, constantly embroiled with cause and effect. “Dude,” as we’ll call him, always found solace in the creative words of others, and Oliver was, for him, a spiritual release. I wanted to hate her. Everything about her. All because of him. Instead I found myself toting copies of her collections around like the bible.
After two years, Dude found a job interning at a law firm far away from Portland, the relationship finally ended. Oh, the poems that shot from my fingertips. The ramblings and rumblings of my aching heart, the anger at wasting time and the deliberate assumption that, with Mary Oliver as my guide, I was going to get better. I did. In fact, my very first published poem was an ode to her entitled “Bullfrog.” It rests beside me as I type. I am still proud of it, no matter what it lacks.
Years later, leaving the city of Portland in a U-Haul with a husband and seven-month-old boy in tow, we three watched the miles tick away between here and there, as we made the move to Cape Cod, where I was born and raised. If you know anything about the poet Mary Oliver, you will know she lives here on Cape Cod in the artist colony of Provincetown.
There were always opportunities to hear her read, but nothing ever worked out until one night, my friend Rachel called and said, “She’s reading this weekend, you know.”
That Saturday, we set out blazing in Rachel’s Porsche for the Outer Lands, to the tip of the Cape, which resembles the moon. Sand dunes line the small highway, kettle ponds dot the landscape and scrub pines, shaped by the wind, stand like warriors to time. All day I imagined this meeting, this reading. I’d printed out a copy of my poem and folded it neatly into an envelope ready to hand it to her. So consumed was I by this evening reading I could barely stay present with my dear friend, whom I see little of for all her traveling and living in New York.
The day had been humid and sunny. A sunglasses-sticking-to-the-bridge-of-your-nose kind of hot and yet, over dinner, the sky opened up to downpours of cool rain. Making a run for the old church where the reading was to be, we walked in, drenched, to a standing-room-only crowd. Rachel scanned the room, grabbed my hand and led me to the front, where we squeezed ourselves in between two women who pressed away from us, disgusted.
As Mary Oliver walked into the room, my eyes filled with tears and I clenched my envelope. She spoke, people oohed. She spoke, people laughed. She spoke and people sat in silence. She spoke and I could only think could I get an interview? There was her publisher, over there in the corner. I’d hit her up first.
And then everyone was standing and clapping and hollering her name and I realized the time had gone by fast (not fast enough, though) and people were lining up to shake her hand and say something nice. My friend pushed me out and we waited in line. I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I should.
“Miss Oliver,” I said, “I wrote this poem for you…it was my first published poem – here,” I said handing it to her damp from rain.
“And I would love to interview you sometime,” I smiled, feeling more confident.
Mary Oliver’s smile turned to a frown.
“I don’t do interviews,” she said, shaking her head.
Devastated, I followed the crowd into the book signing room. My friend had already tried to help get the publisher on board to help, to no avail.
“I’m so sorry,” I heard her say. “She just doesn’t do interviews.”
Rachel and I stood in the church doorway after, gauging how wet we were (again) about to get. She grabbed my hand and we ran out. I was grateful for the rain to hide my tears and even though I rarely use the word, my shame.
The thing we have to realize about this life is that there are endless opportunities. Sometimes they knock so hard, screaming for us to hear. Battling the wind, the rain and the clamor of daily routine, they shout for us to pay attention. They beg us to be quiet and accept.
Like the bullfrog.
(For Mary Oliver)
I saw her there,
heard her melodic croaking
in the throat
of the Bullfrog –
Thick and mournful.
I was young then.
With her body hobbled,
I took advantage and pushed
the jar over her
watching the thick, grey
mucus from her back
stripe the inside of the glass.
“How beautiful you are!” I shouted.
only able to move her eyes
then a shaking,
like dad’s Ford,
February in all its splendor-
I knew that something strange was happening
more strange could happen.
This time it’s me.
A lecture hall,
talk of meiosis, mitosis,
a double helix unzipping
like cool river water over
a stray stone.
I hear her again.
Her croaks ascend into something
I fight to breathe,
struggle to listen,
knowing my life depends
on her entirely.
Between the Lines is a weekly column navigating the sometimes-sharp, sometimes-blurred lines of conscious life and culture between city and country, between inner worlds and outer.