Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

05 August 2011

Before Bed

My old habit before bed was to do a sudoku puzzle – you know, a sort of mindless, semi-sleep-inducing task.

But lately, I have been reading poetry in bed before I go to sleep. I have found it hard to justify taking time out to read poetry during the day (Why am I not reading theory or writing my dissertation?, I ask myself.), but, as I posted some days ago, I was recently reminded how much I really love reading poetry, and reading poetry at night has been perfect.

This week it's been Mary Oliver. I know she is not everyone's cup of tea. The poems are simple and they are insistently – almost obsessively – about nature. I love them. I love her poetry's notion of a beauty that is impersonal, for how can we think that the wild world around us is for us or about us in any way? And I love her desire to listen, to watch, her striving for real presence in all of her work. I wish for such awareness in my own life and I admire it in hers. This is from West Wind:


Stars
Here in my head, language
keeps making its tiny noises.

How can I hope to be friends
with the hard white stars

whose flaring and hissing are not speech
but pure radiance?

How can I hope to be friends
with the yawning spaces between them

where nothing, ever, is spoken?
Tonight, at the edge of the field,

I stood very still, and looked up,
and tried to be empty of words.

What joy was it, that almost found me?
What amiable peace?

Then it was over, the wind
roused up in the oak trees behind me

and I fell back, easily.
Earth has a hundred thousand pure contraltos—

even the distant night bird
as it talks threat, as it talks love

over the cold, black fields.
Once, deep in the woods,

I found the white skull of a bear
and it was utterly silent—

and once a river otter, in a steel trap,
and it too was utterly silent.

What can we do
but keep on breathing in and out,

modest and willing, and in our places?
Listen, listen, I'm forever saying,

Listen to the river, to the hawk, to the hoof,
to the mockingbird, to the jack-in-the-pulpit—

then I come up with a few words, like a gift.
Even as now.

Even as the darkness has remained the pure, deep darkness.
Even as the stars have twirled a little, while I stood here,

looking up,
one hot sentence after another.