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WEST WIND #2
by Mary Oliver
You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart's little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks--when you hear that unmistakable pounding--when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming--then row, row for your life toward it.
ROW FOR YOUR LIFE
"Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed."
Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook
Yes indeed! I can still feel the heat of Mary Oliver's poem long after I have put it down. It is a prose poem, and one of the most deeply passionate poems on love that I have ever read. Mary Oliver is speaking directly to the way we live. The love in question is of the kind that feeds the whole garden of a life. What does it feel like to live a life of love? What does it take; and what is the alternative? These are the questions that burn through this poem.
Oliver, one of the most lyrical poets alive today, speaks plainly here; she has chosen to convey her message in prose. Her choice fits the poem's plain and declarative style. When I read this poem, however, I feel it is not so much she who makes these declarations, as that part of me who recognizes the truth of them. To read this poem aloud is to have the wiser part of yourself counsel the younger, untested heart that lives in us all.
You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing.
Even now, at the age of fifty-seven, and for all the experience that has tried to teach me otherwise, there is a part of me, still young, that is tempted to leap into the boat and start rowing. I can still act as if I know everything. I can pile into an idea or a course of action before I have barely given it the time of day, with what can seem like an arrogant certainty. This is what Oliver calls "the heart's little intelligence": the impulsive response of a heart governed by the emotion of the moment.
In that moment, however, full of the rush of my own sense of capability, I feel as if I am getting on with the task at hand. Action is needed, and I'm taking it. Perhaps it's in my hard wiring: most men feel good when they fix things. Sometimes too late, it dawns on me how such "effectiveness" can rip at the fabric of things and discount the filaments of connection that join any one life to another.
But listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul.
"Listen to me": Oliver calls out three times. It is always three times that the cock crows. She calls, not to the youth in us, not to the impulsive heart that knows and sees the world with a naive and definite clarity; she speaks to our soul. The soul knows in a different way. It gathers honey in the dark from near and far. The soul is always connected to a larger life. It is joined by invisible threads to the soul of all other things, and in this way, the world whispers to it without ceasing. That is why it is natural for the soul to pause, to listen, to wonder. Only the soul in us has the time to listen deeply.
If this poem is full of words consonant with sound--"the churn of the water...that unmistakable pounding...the long falls plunging and steaming"--it is because of this: that Oliver is addressing that part of us which is willing to listen in the dark, and willing to know with a knowing that is more of a shiver than a string of bright words.
There is life without love.
Mary Oliver is speaking directly to that part of you and me that knows, however faintly, that when we rush into life, when we leap into action without any connection to the deeper currents that move through us always, we are acting without love. Our oars thrash at the water, and we break the gossamer web of life this way.
There is indeed a life without love, she says. It is quite possible to live a life in which your soul plays no part. You can jump up and down with every passing impulse, and never hear the whispering call that is there all along. On the other hand, you can live a busy, efficient existence full of duties and responsibilities and never even know there is a deeper life. You can be successful, a bright star, even. But your nights may carry other voices on the wings of dreams. Whispers of great empty spaces, lonely and afraid.
Life without love--without the soul being wholly engaged in your living--is not worth a bent penny. Not just a penny, but a bent penny. Not just a single shoe, which is worthless without its partner, but a scuffed shoe. The bent penny and the scuffed shoe are degraded, somehow; their original form has been bent out of shape. Then, not just a dead dog, but a dead dog nine days unburied. Life without love stinks. These are some of the most shocking, awakening images I know of. Oliver is entirely uncompromising here; fierce, even. She does not fudge. If you will give no room for the soul in your life, then you might as well give up on the game now.
This is why she is calling so urgently here, not to the untested heart that jumps with every passing emotion, but to the truth of your deep heart. Every spiritual tradition makes a distinction between the two. The Christians call the latter the interior heart; the Hindus, the heart within the heart. The soul is its other name.
Mary Oliver is calling to your soul. It is a call you will find echoing through all her work. Mary Oliver, Pulitzer prize-winner, winner of the National Book Award, is one of the few great voices in American literature today who urges us to love this world with astonishment and devotion. "You do not have to be good," she declares (in her poem "Wild Geese"2); to Be, and to be awake--that, her poetry sings out, is the holiest thing.
Your soul, she suggests, is already connected to the bigger life that joins you to everything else. Let us call that bigger life by its true name, which is love. Mary Oliver is speaking not only of the love for another here, though that may be one way your own soul travels, as mine has. She is speaking more broadly about your life as a whole: whether its overall movement is one of love, or one of alienation.
When you hear that call, she says, when you feel in your marrow the pull of your soul--to another human being, to a work, to the true direction of your life--that is the time to act. Without that inner prompting, which you can hear only when you lay down your oars and listen in the quiet; without that, you will be like a boat without a rudder in life, however much control you may appear to have. Even though the source of the magnetic pull is still out of sight, even though you can't possibly know where it will lead you, though it may seem to be beyond all reason--to be madness, even--you must respond to it.
Trust and courage are qualities of soul, and you will need them both to follow the path of love. Which doesn't mean you won't feel trepidation, dread, even. But your fear and anxiety will be held in the broad embrace of a deeper trust whose source is love itself, the soul's air.
the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks--
I first experienced the wildness of love when I was thirty years old. It was no easy ride, and my heart was pounding. Never before then had I fallen in love so completely, without reserve. It happened all of a sudden, with someone I had known well for years. One evening we were sitting with others in a room in London, as we had done so many times before. Our gaze met, and in that moment, a bolt of lightning passed between us. The intensity was so great, so unexpected, that I had to look away. The shock was too much to bear. From that moment on, we both felt as if the other was intimately present with us, day and night, wherever we were. From then on, whenever our eyes met, our bodies and minds were filled with the presence of an intense aliveness.
This woman, however, was the wife of one of my best friends and colleagues. I, too, was married, and my wife was pregnant. An old, old story, in which there is no lack of swirling and roiling. But was it love, or was it infatuation? Was it the call of the soul or the impulse of the untried heart, which had never known such wild intensity before? It is not always easy to know the difference, especially when the certainty of the young, impulsive part of us can be so convincing.
Webster's dictionary says infatuation is "to be inspired with a foolish or extravagant love." That certainly fits the description, though who is to say after the event if any love is foolish? The longing we had to be in each other's presence could not possibly be denied; yet to act on it decisively would have caused deep suffering for both our partners and our children. In the event, our lives led us away from each other within a few months, and what seemed at the time like the more difficult road, the call of duty--though now I sense it to have been the wisdom of some deeper stream--won out. Our partners still suffered, of course, and as it happened, years later, both marriages ended.
After those few brief months I did not see or hear of the woman whose eyes I had seen across that room for another twenty years. When we did finally meet again, on another continent, we still carried the memory of those fiery times, and realized that we continued to see each other in its reflection. Yet the intensity had died down long before, and our lives had moved on. There was no going back, and there were no regrets. Only a certain astonishment at how a love never dies, even so; and at the way life had picked us up, whirled us around, and set us down again on a path quite different from the one we had briefly imagined might be our destiny.
You will interpret Mary Oliver's words according to your own life circumstance. Only you, in a quiet moment of receptivity, can know the difference between your soul's true direction and the convincing clamor of your life's current intensity. Wherever you are in your life, her lines call out to you to let yourself fall headlong into the life that has been waiting for you all along. And whatever the circumstance, if it is a matter of love, it will be the ride of your life.
Not only that: it may well be the death of you--of the you that has refused to listen for so long, who has dared live only in a corner of your life, rather than reach out and bite the full fruit of it. When you hear the sound of that deep current, Mary Oliver says--"that unmistakable pounding"--then row! Think about it--she is urging us to head for the almighty drop, sight unseen, "a mile / away and still out of sight,..."
"[R]ow for your life / toward it." When you row, you have your back facing the direction you are heading toward. Even in this final moment, in this last line, Mary Oliver is saying it again: you cannot hope to see what lies ahead when it comes to a life lived with love. You can only row, drawn on by the soundless sound, knowing there is nothing else you can do or would even want to do.
What an astounding call. To strike out into the current that was there all along, rather than try so hard to push this way and that by your own efforts; to row along with it and sail over the waterfall into the bright air of love. Only much later in my life did I come to have that experience. Fully committed, not even having to know fully to what.
1. Excerpt from A Poetry Handbook. Mary Oliver. New York: Harvest Books, 1995.
From the Hardcover edition.