So Plainly Marvelous: Mary Oliver and My Search for the Sublime
My relationship with the great outdoors hasn’t always been easy. As a young teenager, stepping into the elements made my face swell up and rashes materialize across my entire body. Because of this, any remaining positive opinion I had of nature was a Romantic byproduct of the books and poems I read in high school. But thanks to a healthy dose of caution and dermatologist-recommended mineral sunscreens, I’m now able to avoid the worst of such allergy flare-ups. Even so, most of my life has been a me vs. nature battle, and I’ve felt I can only win by staying indoors. Not until recently has my outlook started to shift.
It wasn’t outdoor PE games or killing insects for my ninth-grade bug project that reconciled me with nature—these activities only drove me further away. It was the simple and profound poetry of Mary Oliver. And she didn’t draw me in with reprimandings, politics, science, or fear. Instead, she pulled aside the veil of the spiritual world and allowed me to see what she saw.
This is something the Romantics tried to do. I fell for their dramatic and mystical poems about dew-dappled fairylands and tragic love, but inched away from this view of nature when I realized that many of the Romantics were philandering womanizers and opium addicts. They also seemed to expend a fair amount of emotional energy in trying to experience the “sublime” whenever there was a rainstorm—I’ve tried this and it’s entirely too much work. That being said, I still enjoy the Romantics and continue to entertain idealist fantasies about being an isolated shepherdess, wandering “lonely as a cloud” and maintaining a humble diet of cheese, apples, and bread. But longing for a landscape unavailable to me, in a country across the sea, and with no mentionable experience with farm animals wasn’t doing me any good. It only bred discontentment.
Although Mary Oliver herself remarked that she enjoyed the poetry of the Romantics, her own poems ring of something more concrete and less wistful. Perhaps it’s her accessible language and plainness of syntax. But I also think it’s because Mary doesn’t see the sublime, nature, God, the universe (call it what you will) as unapproachable, even if it may be, in a sense, unknowable. She seems to recognize that there is something mysterious about life and believes that attention and devotion is necessary in the search for answers. She was on a deliberate quest to discover truth, a quest so simple and unpretentious, I felt I could join along.
I remember one of my first exposures to Mary. I was doing yard work on a summer evening and listening to her interview with Krista Tippett. Mary mentioned that “with discipline and a willingness and wish to communicate, very ‘slippery’ things come to you when you aren’t planning on receiving them.” As she matter-of-factly talked about her dark childhood, the solace she found in nature, and her fascination with understanding God and the spiritual world, I began to see things differently. The insects in sight, every blade of grass under my feet, and the leaves above me were so plainly marvelous. Paying attention had wrought a real change in my perspective. Suddenly the smallest things felt like a form of revelation.
Not long after, I stopped at a nearby bookstore and bought a collection of Mary’s poems. An intimate and pure perspective of nature had been offered me, altogether new, but one that I readily embraced. I read her poems in bed before falling asleep. They were about bears and blackberries, birds and grief. They were so slow, so rarely about humans; reading them felt like briefly stepping outside myself. A few years later, while working on a paper for one of my college classes, I decided to reference some of Mary’s work. In my research, I came across her essay “The Winter Hours,” in which she shares the intimate depths of her beliefs.
She explains that she believes in the soul—that every animate and inanimate creature and object is alive.
“Not romantically do I believe this, not poetically, nor emotionally, nor metaphorically except as all reality is metaphor, but steadily, lumpishly, and absolutely.”
How refreshing for a nature poet to admit that she doesn’t believe in something for its romance or poetics—I trusted her all the more. Mary has no slant. On the last page of the essay she reveals something that made me stop in my tracks and reread:
“Once, I came upon two angels, they were standing quietly, keeping guard beside a car. Light streamed from them, and a splash of flames lay quietly under their feet. What is one to do with such moments, such memories, but cherish them? Who knows what is beyond the known?”
She drops this onto the last page with such quiet reverence that I almost missed it. I assume the same goes for most miracles. So simple, I believe it could happen to me too.
I no longer consider myself entirely at odds with the natural world. I’ve come to view it as a window, a bridge, and even a mirror. It’s the link between the seen and the unseen. I willingly and happily hike—a fact that would’ve shocked me a few years ago. I’m quicker to notice animals and insects and appreciate the richness of creation, and I hurt when it’s destroyed. It’s easier to sit inside with the AC blasting, my skin shielded from water and sun, forehead glued to my phone. But it’s only after the slog of getting on shoes and perhaps some mineral sunscreen that true devotion begins, and after devotion, knowledge. It requires paying attention when it’s inconvenient, moving through the clutter of human voices and trying to hear something else, to glimpse some small, shining movement, flickering, just beyond the veil.
Oliver, Mary. Winter Hours. Houghton Mifflin, 1999, pp.107-109.
“Mary Oliver - Listening to the World.” The On Being Project, 3 Sept. 2020, onbeing.org/programs/mary-oliver-listening-to-the-world/.
Abby Larkins was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is currently studying English at Brigham Young University. She enjoys traveling, reading, and becoming more “outdoorsy.” Her future plans include writing for children and editing for adults.