Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mary Oliver on knowing and not-knowing


I originally considered entitling this blog “Mary Oliver and epistemology,” but I decided that perhaps no one would bother to read it. “Epistemology” is one of those long words that pedantic people like to throw into a conversation. For years, every time I ran across it in a book, I had to look it up. Somehow the meaning just didn’t stick in my mind. Most of my friends don’t use words like that.
It’s finally sticking, and I actually like the sound of it. Epistemology. I like its meaning even more. It refers to the science of knowledge, the study of how we know, of how we discover what is true and what is just opinion. (I’m making this definition up as I go, but I think I’m close to the mark.)
Mary Oliver and the sound of the word epistemology don’t go together. Her poems are rich but simple in their word choice. No showing off or pedantry here. But the meaning of the word comes up frequently in her work. The theme of knowing, or even more frequently, not-knowing, swims beneath the surface of her nature poems.
This trip to Bolivia is all about epistemology. We’re researching the history of the Bolivian Friends Church, interviewing the old people, scrounging around in the archives, trying to come up with the truth behind the people and events that have formed this church. We are trying to sort fact from mythology, especially about the early years. We are trying to come to a right knowledge, being careful to document all the bits and pieces.
In the spaces between the tasks, I turn these days to Mary Oliver’s poems. I have only one volume on my Kindle, Why I Wake Early. Oliver’s poetic epistemology brings balance to my wrestling with so many facts. Here are just a few excerpts.
In the poem “Bone,” Oliver writes about discovering the ear bone of a pilot whale on the beach and compares its mystery to the mystery of the human soul:
Beside me 
the gray sea
was opening and shutting its wave-doors, 
unfolding over and over
its time-ridiculing roar; 
I looked but I couldn’t see anything
through its dark-knit glare; 
yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
is there at the bottom, 
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it 
lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts— 
certainties—
and what the soul is, also 
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing, 
truly I know
our part is not knowing, 
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on, softly, 
through the pale-pink morning light.
Oliver begins the poem, "Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?," with these lines:
There are things you can’t reach. But 
you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
Later in the poem she says,
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking. 
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open…. 
And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world 
comes.
At least closer….
In the poem, “Trout Lilies,” Oliver arrives at knowledge, not through books but through memory and intuition as she recalls an experience with trout lilies as a young girl:
It happened I couldn’t find in all my books 
more than a picture and a few words concerning
the trout lily, 
so I shut my eyes.
And let the darkness come in 
and roll me back….
If she spoke to them, I don’t remember what she said, 
and if they kindly answered, it’s a gift that can’t be broken
by giving it away. 
All I know is, there was a light that lingered, for hours,
under her eyelids—that made a difference 
when she went back to a difficult house, at the end of the day.
The poem “Breakage” takes place in the morning on a beach, where broken shells and barnacles litter the sand. I read into this an epistemology for this history project we’re working on:
…It’s like a schoolhouse 
of little words,
thousands of words. 
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop 
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
“The Dovekie” gives this insight on knowing our world:
…Listen, 
once again,
as again, and again, 
we are given
this single wisdom: 
to know
our world 
is to be busy
all day long 
with happiness….
In “Something,” Oliver finds “something” on the beach, and brings it home to study and identify:
…I brought it home 
out of the uncombed morning and consulted
among my books. I do not know 
what to call this sharpest desire
to discover a name, 
but there it is, suddenly, clearly
illustrated on the page, offering my heart 
another singular
moment of happiness: to know that it is 
the egg case of an ocean shell,
the whelk…one more 
sweet-as-honey answer for the wanderer
whole tongue is agile, whose mind, 
in the world’s riotous plenty,
wants syntax, connections, lists, 
and most of all names to set beside the multitudinous
stars, flowers, sea creatures, rocks, trees…
 Sometimes I dream
that everything in the world is here, in my room, 
in a great closet, named and orderly,
and I am here too, in front of it, 
hardly able to see for the flash and the brightness—
and sometimes I am that madcap person clapping my hands and singing; 
and sometimes I am that quiet person down on my knees.
The poem, “Mindful,” is one of my favorites. I’m tempted to quote the whole poem, but I won’t. Oliver says that every day she finds something in the natural world that “leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light.” She writes that she was born to look and listen, “to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.” She ends the poem with a question to herself as a knower:
 Oh, good scholar, 
I say to myself,
how can you help 
but grow wise
with such teachings 
as these—
the untrimmable light 
of the world,
the ocean’s shine, 
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
In “Daisies,” Oliver is crossing a field in the summer and
…the mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either 
knows enough already or knows enough to be
perfectly content not knowing. Song being born 
of quest he knows this: he must turn silent
were he suddenly assaulted with answers….
There it is. Epistemology, from the perspective of the poet. Somehow I now feel clean, clear-headed, and better able to get back to those dusty archives. May truth prevail!

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