Tag Archives: American poetry

“UPSTREAM – Selected Essays” by Mary Oliver

Upstream: Selected Essays

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” A friend of mine has this message tattooed on her back. It’s a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”.

When poet Mary Oliver died in January of 2019 (at the age of 83), my Facebook feed was flooded with tributes.

For Christmas this year, I asked for “UPSTREAM – Selected Essays” (2016), since I’m not a good (comfortable?) reader of poetry. In the first (title) essay, she describes wandering away from her family as a young child, wading up a stream and finding delight after delight, beauty and joy, “lost” but ecstatically happy. “I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.” Oliver’s biography describes a difficult childhood, and nature was a refuge.

Another refuge was reading. In “My Friend Walt Whitman” and “Some Thoughts on Whitman” she describes how she loved “his certainty, and his bravado” and his willingness to write about experiences that cannot be described in words, that are mystical. She also writes about Emerson and Poe.

Oliver’s reflections on “nature” emphasize relationship. In the essay “Bird” she talks about saving the life of an injured blackback gull. She knows the creature is doomed, but she keeps it alive and becomes attached to it. It is responsive. It even plays. But over time, it’s life slips away.

Some of Oliver’s work reminds me of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“The Summer Day” ends with a line that echoes in my mind. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Today I spent two hours out of doors. Not a summer day, but still good.

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The Frost Place – Museum and Poetry Center, Franconia NH

Growing up, I practiced piano under the sharp eyes of my great grandparents. Their picture hung just to the left of my piano. John and Margaret Lynch were born in the mid-19thcentury and arrived as part of the big wave of migration of the Irish to the United States. I don’t know how old they were when photographed – perhaps in their 50s? John smiled a bit for the camera, but Margaret is serious to the point of looking rather grim.

My sister and I decided to donate the photo to The Frost Place, a small museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, because Frost and his family boarded with the Lynches. John and Margaret are mentioned in Jeffrey Meyers biography of Frost published in 1996. After a few preliminary phone calls and preparation of a gift letter, we drove up to Franconia.

The Frost Place is off the beaten track! My GPS faded. The road is less traveled. Eventually we found a few signs to follow.

The Center consists of the house, a barn fixed for educational use, a trail and (best of all!) a porch. What a view! Part of the house is occupied by an invited “poet in residence” every summer. The public part of the house is beautifully restored.

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Frost has been described as America’s most widely read and most loved poet, said to symbolize “the rough-hewn individuality of the American creative spirit more than any other man”. NYT, announcing Frost’s death, Jan 29, 1963

I love small museums! This is a delightful example of that genre, and well worth a drive off the beaten trail.

The Frost Place Museum and Poetry Center

Maya Angelou – 1928 to 2014 – Rest in Peace

Nineteen years ago, on my birthday, my sister game me Phenomenal Woman, a little volume containing four of Maya Angelou’s most popular poems. The perfect gift from one woman to another!

That was not my first exposure to the author Maya Angelou. Fifteen years earlier, I had seen her in person, reading her poetry on a college campus. She read a poem I had spotted many years before that, in Seventeen magazine. I don’t know what it was called, but it described a young black woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful, because “dish water gives back no reflection”. How could I remember a line of poetry so long? Angelou was a writer of incredible skill!

She read another poem from which I still remember a fragment. It was a list of terms that can be added to the description of a woman’s skin beyond the term “black”. A list of descriptors, all positive. “Bubbling brown sugar” was one.

I don’t remember when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I remember so many details. One of my favorite parts was what she wrote about the role religion played in her life as a young woman. (Maybe this was actually in her second autobiographical book.) She was rational and “modern” and probably would not have described herself as “religious”, but she could not stay away from church, drawn in particular to the music. She would go to church, be swept up in the beauty and emotion, and join the choir… Her husband was baffled when a choir robe was delivered or her church brethren came to call.

(I am not checking on these remembered details, and apologize for any inaccuracy.)

I wonder what Maya Angelou thought when the term “black”, so fiercely claimed and energetically transformed into a badge of honor by Angelou and her contemporaries, was superseded by “African American”. She was not a woman to fear change, but might she have felt a twinge of loss?

I’m not particularly sensitive to poetry, and I seldom seek it out, but Maya Angelou spoke to me in a way that was stunningly memorable. I love the pictures of her that are being displayed today, the pictures of her in her maturity. She was grand, elegant and eloquent. Rest in peace, respected author and elder.