Poems can satisfy on a number of levels. A bawdy limerick can be cathartic, as one of Garrison Keillor’s, recited in his distinctive baritone, was for me at a performance about a month or so ago (“There was a young man from Madras….”). Poems can tell a story, set a particular mood, be it joyous or melancholy, or can dazzle with language; they can convey sentiments we’re hard pressed to articulate in prose, and can often help us see things in new or unexpected ways. Some poems accomplish many of those things all at once.
Mary Oliver has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for her poetry, much of which takes the natural world–the seasons, water, birds, plant life–as its subject. With its cycles of renewal and constant change, nature is an apt metaphor.
Exactly one year ago today, one of my closest friends, and surrogate big sister, died of pancreatic cancer. I was one of several people who spoke at her memorial service last June, and I ended my remarks with Oliver’s Snow Geese.
Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
of anything, or anyone,
yet it is ours,
and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.
One fall day I heard
above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was
a flock of snow geese, winging it
faster than the ones we usually see,
and, being the color of snow, catching the sun
so they were, in part at least, golden. I
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.
The message is comforting, albeit in a bittersweet way. Loss is inevitable–indeed, the threat of loss is ever present–but that doesn’t prevent any of us from being touched, often by ‘something wonderful.’ And when the losses do come, we can hold on to what came before.
What matters is that while my friend was alive, I saw her clearly.
“….whose balls were made out of brass/He clanged them together/And played ‘Stormy Weather’/While lightening shot out of his ass.”
It had to be done.