I came to Mary Oliver in my late thirties. Before that, I had likely read a poem or two back in university, but had not really known her work in any substantial or influential way as a young poet. Then, I took a yoga class and my teacher, Willa, read “Wild Geese” while I was in some oddly fashioned bird-like pose which was causing me mental, spiritual, and physical grief. (It was likely Pigeon Pose, which I both love and hate for a number of reasons.) For a couple of minutes, while she read, I forgot the frustration I felt within the pose, of thinking I was not ‘good enough’ to do yoga, or that I was not slim or lithe enough to manage the physical contortions and fluidity of the various asanas.
At the time, I was struggling with major depressive disorder, acting as the primary caregiver for my dying mother and weakening father, and also dealing with anti-depressant weight gain. Dark nights of the soul do indeed exist. I came to my mat each week, feet bare and heart sore. Then, one evening, Willa read the first line: “You do not have to be good.” It was like a bell went off somewhere inside me. After a lifetime of confusing duty with love, this line of poetry was a catalyst for change. It nudged me, gave me permission to begin stepping into myself as a woman and as a poet.
I was terribly overweight at the time I first heard the words, so I couldn’t envision even being on friendly terms with my own body, but the lines “You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves” now make sense to me. In my mid-forties, fit and healthier than I’ve ever been, I have come to a place where I honour, respect, and celebrate that ‘soft animal.’ There’s an amazing thing that happens when you integrate the physical and spiritual, whether body and spirit, or landscape and spirit, or both. Oliver’s work, in both poetry and prose, continuously weaves that magic.
In such a small poem, really, Mary Oliver talks about how intimacy works. She speaks of learning to accept yourself, and others, and she tells the reader that there is a connection to be found in the natural landscape of wilderness if we ever happen to feel too solitary. She does not shrink from giving voice to sadness, even inviting the reader to “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” There is great vulnerability here, in opening a heart wide enough to share such stories, and doing so is an intimate act of its own accord. That sense of bravery still amazes me every time I read “Wild Geese.” She so bravely makes herself vulnerable in her work, and this inspires me in my own life and work.
Despite the despair that naturally comes as part of life, “the world goes on.” Beyond our own personal emotional quagmires, “the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain/are moving across the landscape,/over prairies and the deep trees,/the mountains and the rivers.” The landscape offers respite when nothing else will, and, when you are at your darkest place, Oliver invites you to look up, to see that “the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.” Hope sits within the centre of the poem, asking the reader to imagine what ‘home’ feels like to a lost soul, and then pointing the way there.
The path through darkness and into light is not simple or tidy in either origin or process. “Wild Geese,” for me, is a piece that resonates deeply. Battling with mental health issues in a stigmatized world is alienating and isolating. To come through the other side, to try and find yourself again, is quite a gargantuan task at times. You lose people whom you thought were friends. You learn to discern whom you can trust, and whom you can risk being vulnerable with, and you sometimes avoid intimacy on a variety of levels because it forces you to face demons over and over again, when you least want to do so, and when you are just too tired. “Wild Geese,” though, reminds me that the risk of opening a heart is more than worthwhile in the long run.
The final lines echo in my heart whenever I read the poem, as Oliver writes:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The notion of disconnection is an illusion, Oliver suggests in all of her work, if you walk out into the woods and touch a tree, or if you look up at the sky to see birds winging their way across its spaces. Hers is a poetic sensibility which requires you to breathe deeply, open your heart, go into dark spaces and spelunk around a bit, and then emerge to find a new version of yourself that is ancient, female, organic, visceral, beautiful, strong, and creative.
Mary Oliver is my poetic mother, and I think of her whenever I hike in the bush around Northern Ontario, or sit by a lake, or look up at the stars at night. We have never met, but I have met her in her words, on the page and in my heart, and for that I am so very grateful.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. She is the fourth poet laureate of the City of Greater Sudbury, and the first woman to be appointed to the role. Kim has published three volumes of poetry, and her fourth, Some Other Sky, is being published in Fall 2017 by Black Moss Press. She has also had two of her plays, Ghost of a Chance and Sparrows Over Slag, workshopped at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Kim has just finished her first novel, a historical piece called The Donoghue Girl, which is set in the mining town of Creighton, a town that existed for a time just outside of Sudbury. She is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers' Union of Canada, and PEN Canada. Kim blogs at The Republic of Poetry at kimfahner.wordpress.com