Drifting in the Weeds of Heaven: Mary Oliver and the Poetics of the Immeasurable

Rose Lucas

"If this was lost, let us all be lost always." [1]

[1] To drift is to take a chance, to refuse the direct path of propriety, of common sense or rationality. To drift may always be to risk oblivion, to become so lost that there is no longer even any point of reference that can be adhered to or described: terra firma slips from the horizon and the inexorable elements are poised to consume anyone caught on such a trajectory into elsewhereness. However, the movement of drifting can also make possible a different kind of travel altogether, a transitioning that is responsive to chance and to circumstance, one which allows the various cross-pressures of the tide to carry a human subject, bobbing and vulnerable, to somewhere wholly unexpected, perhaps to somewhere that never could be arrived at via the pathways of rational intention. Indeed, to drift may be to relinquish the notion of arrival altogether and instead to privilege the reactivity of journey itself—the paradoxical mindfulness of inhabiting a present tense which is inevitably protracted across the linearity of moments in time.

[2] The poetry of Mary Oliver uses the motif of drifting as her defining aesthetic and conceptual frame. In this context, to drift is not to lose the 'correct' path, to wander in an exilic aporia of shapelessness and uncertainty. Rather, Oliver's poetry suggests, to drift is to take the path of poetry and of reflection, a way which is always in some relation, but also fundamentally other, to what she describes as the "difficult steps in the empire of thought." [2] While we may invariably always long to "know," to fit our relation to the world into some kind of framework of certainty and expectation, it is "what is beyond knowing" which persistently calls to us, in the intoxicating specificity of the surplus of the image, through the heightened awareness of the self in a world of continuity and radical difference and dissolution. To drift is thus to pay attention to different cues—ones which may not register in trajectories of the rational and of the classificatory. It is to read different markers in what Oliver views as the meditative and non-linear journeying of life, thus reconsidering notions of goal and arrival and success. "I climb. I backtrack./I float./I ramble my way home" ("Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches," p. 140),the poet writes, foregrounding an idea of movement, yet a drifting movement which resists all but the most basic points of reference—"home"—in its emphasis upon awareness and sensitivity to the potential of otherness.

[3] To pay attention to the possibilities, the language of otherness, is also to find the possibilities for speech, for a dialogue of poesis which contributes and shapes as much as it listens and responds. Oliver's poetic takes us to this sometimes precarious, but always productive, space of exchange; it is a tidal, littoral space where the desires and creativity of the poetic voice ebb and flow with the mutually sustaining world of perception, with the susurrations of a radically alteric sphere. As she notes in the poem "The Swan":

          ...The path to heaven

doesn't lie down in flat miles.
     It's in the imagination
          with which you perceive
             this world. [3]

This paper will focus upon five key poems from Oliver's most recent collection, some new and some reproduced—"What Is There Beyond Knowing," "Terns," "Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith," "Bone" and "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches"—to explore the motif of drifting both as an enabling personal strategy and as a strategy for the production of poetry. In so doing, it will consider questions of knowledge and its beyond, of the possibilities of affirmation and even of faith, a trust in the possibilities of what is "immeasurable" to sustain and enliven, as well as the varying poetic shapes which drifting and meandering might take.

[4] The poem "What Is There Beyond Knowing" (p.20) focuses key questions which recur throughout Oliver's poetic; not only is poetry seen as an interplay of attention and inscription, but also as a site of productive tension between the persistent desire of rational, human knowledge to encompass the wide horizons of possibility and a concomitant recognition of the limits of such rational endeavor. Poetry is here seen as a confrontation with the limits of rationality as well as with its vital potential; it hovers always on a liminal edge between the visible and invisible worlds, between speech and silence, between knowledge and whatever it is that might be "beyond knowing." However, not only is this a matter of epistemological failure [4]—a recognition that knowledge must fall short in what we want it to do [5]—but also, Oliver suggests, by means of imagery and poetic structure, perhaps this inability is also facilitatory, opening more possibilities than it closes. Rationality falls short—and we are left, freefalling, into a sphere of beyond-ness—yet it is this very sphere which enables the possibilities of the extra-rational, the shimmering worlds of the imagination, the humility of faith as well as the endless elusivity of any object of desire. [6]

[5] Significantly, the poem's title operates ambiguously; it raises the question—albeit without the question mark—of what it is there might be "beyond knowing," while also suggesting an affirmation, an offer to show the reader what it is that might indeed lie beyond the house of the comprehensible. It is the status of beyond-ness which is given the active position of calling, which draws the poet-speaker forward into that dynamic present:

What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me? I can't

turn in any direction
but it's there. I don't mean

the leaves' grip and shine or even the thrush's
silk song, but the far-off

fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven's slowly turning

theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;

or time that's always rushing forward,
or standing still

in the same—what shall I say—moment.

These lines suggest a delineation between a closeness—"leaves' grip and shine," the thrush's/silk song"—which may be within spheres of knowing, and that which is more remote or elemental, far less susceptible to human comprehension—"stars," "wind," "time." The gaze of the poet, the point of her concentration, moves here from the study of the particularity of the immediate or natural world which is such a dominant aspect of Oliver's post-romantic and transcendentalist heritage and style [7], to a catapulting into the always-unassailable. As Laird Christensen describes it, Oliver's poetic "precision of attention leads the reader along a well-worn transcendentalist path from direct observation toward revelation and an enhanced recontextualisation." [8] It may be of course, that this is a logical extension and that all of these elements, both far and near, are equally apparently available to, yet inevitably in excess of, the determined lasso of human knowing. However, it is the "far-off" which emphasizes the asymmetrical relation between human observer and the world of observations, the smallness of knowing which the speaker struggles with—when to accept its limitations, when to seek to extend its boundaries.

What I know
I could put into a pack

as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,

important and honorable, but so small!

There is a journey to be undertaken here, one which leads the speaker, solitary and reflective, into the natural world, and rational knowledge is part of what will sustain her. This is not the hubris of a knowledge which claims mastery, which seeks to colonize the world beneath its gaze, but a knowledge which recognizes both its limits and its possibilities. "How wonderful it is/to follow a thought quietly/to its logical end./I have done this a few times," the speaker notes. There is indeed value in what can be known—"important and honorable"—but nevertheless it is "so small," and not where the gravitational desire of the poem leads us. The simple goodness of a small amount of bread and cheese will support the idea of journey or hike only so long, especially "While everything else continues, unexplained/and unexplainable." And while the poem makes a space for such a finite knowing, the final lines lead the speaker out and into the seductive dark fields which lie beyond explicability, suggesting a space and a way of being which is not confined or classified by logic or by creed. Rather, it is one in which the viscerality and particularity of the body is experienced co-terminously with the world of objects, of perception, in a human registering of the possibility of its own excess:

But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn't have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there's a temple, I haven't found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass and the weeds.

The movement of the "drift" embodies the desire of the poem, the paradox of an open-ended end-point. It is offered in preference even to the preparations of the hike, although the hike might also be seen as an extension of that romantically-inspired journeying of the individual through the natural world. The extended present tense of the drift—"I simply go on drifting"—embodies the meditative, trusting aspect of this movement, predicated upon the movements of the breath of the human body as well as upon the external pulses of "light, wind and rain." In a Whitmanesque, democratizing gesture, the "heaven" which this drifting leads into is not an elevated sphere of alterity; it is the unclassified, easy to miss and modest world beneath our walking feet, a world of cyclic growth, of decay and animation—a world which speaks in a language we never expected and have so very little ability to interpret. As Rich also described in her poem "Transcendental Etude," writing consciously in the legacy of transcendentalism as a form of American romanticism, evoking also its links to a kind of post-pastoral aesthetic - it is what lies below, out of sight, or seemingly inconsequential, which is both subject matter and source of inspiration for the drifting gaze of the poet:

I've sat on a stone fence above a great-soft, sloping field
of musing heifers, a farmstead
slanting its planes calmly in the calm light,
a dead elm raising bleached arms
above a green so dense with life,
minute, momentary life—slugs, moles, pheasants, gnats,
spiders, moths, hummingbirds, groundhogs, butterflies
a lifetime is too narrow
to understand it all, beginning with the huge
rockshelves that underlie all life. [9]

[6] Oliver's poem "Bone" (p.72) revisits these paradoxes of knowing and not-knowing, and the desire of the human to understand itself in relation to what might be "immeasurable" and beyond knowing:

Understand, I am always trying to figure out
                    what the soul is,
                  and where hidden,
                    and what shape —

The speaker here explicitly uses the language of rational enquiry—to understand, figure out, to pin down and classify the extreme elusivity of the soul, that "part" of human experience which can seem so difficult to quantify and yet so vital to an experience of the self and its various "beyonds." So, when the poet finds along the beach "the ear bone/of a pilot whale that may have died/hundreds of years ago/...I thought: the soul/might be like this -/so hard, so necessary - / yet almost nothing." The physical object, itself trailing the possibilities of history, the scientific and imaginative reconstruction of a life once lived, is first taken as a kind of clue. To understand the natural world, if we could, in all its specificity, might be to offer us a metaphoric template for understanding the relation between what we know or can see, and what is beyond seeing. However, this impulse toward classification is problematised almost immediately by the poem; looking at the "gray sea" before her, the speaker turns over the ambivalence of knowledge like the fossilized bone in her hand:

...don't we all know, the golden sand
          is there at the bottom,
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it

lest we would sift it down
into fraction, and facts—
        and what the soul is, also

I believe I will never quite know.

There is a glimpse of knowing, an assumption or faith in the possibility of the golden sand on the ocean floor beneath the "dark-knit glare" of the waves which, the poem suggests, would be contaminated, damaged in some way by the classificatory and dissecting impulses towards "fractions and facts," the impulse to haul it dripping and exposed into the glare of rationality. Although we stand on the edge of knowing, like the speaker on the liminal sphere of the shore, and although she acknowledges that rational knowledge will never cease to tantalize us, the poem returns to a sense of it as a false god, a false construction of life's business as being one of revelation and taxonomy. Once again, Oliver returns to the sense of the drift as an alternative to such trajectories of rationality, reinforcing a philosophy and an aesthetic of paradox, and an acceptance of the questions of self which derive from a visceral, sensuous receptivity to the world of alterity:

Though I play at the edges of knowing,
            truly I know
        our part is not knowing,

but looking, and touching, and loving,
        which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.

The shape of the poem itself embodies and enacts the idea of drift. The tidal pull between the desires both to know and not to know, the overlapping of waters that obscure and reveal, are echoed in the meandering movement of the words on the page. The lines are not justified to the left; instead there is a pulse which reflects the thinking, interior body, its intakes of breath and exhalation, as well as the unregimentable and interchangeable rhythm of ideas. There is, as is often the case throughout Oliver's work, a run-on of ideas from one line to the next, but here this slipping and sliding movement is emphasized in "Bone" as the enjambment crosses the arbitrary lines of the section numbers—no matter how we might try to codify and classify our sense of self and world, the tumbling dance of the poetic line draws us back to a fluidity of paradox, of a beyond of logic.

[7] The poem "Terns" (p.34) is quite explicit in its dismissal of classificatory knowledge. "Don't think just now of the trudging forward of thought,/but of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation," it begins. What these lines exhort us to leave behind is the wearying sterility of a forward linear trajectory of knowledge which seems to get nowhere particularly fast or worthwhile. And while there may be "years to come" in which a questioning mind might "try the difficult steps in the empire of thoughts," the poem claims to offer the reader something preferable to such a hierarchical and ego-driven ascent—the prospect of flying across, down and up, with the "wing-drive" of the terns. In many ways, this poem reformulates the romantic and post-romantic tension between the experience of the self in relation to the world of nature and of otherness: to what extent can the human only colonize, impose upon the natural world, mining it as a source of metaphor, or objective correlative for an interior state or question; and/or to what extent is it possible to listen, to perceive the language of a world which is exterior to the self? As the Australian poet Judith Wright notes, how possible is it ever to listen to the "language of the leaves," [10] to perceive the natural world, the world of exteriority to the observing self—as anything other than colonized, written over by the desires and the "human patterns" of the poet? (11)

[8] In his essay on Oliver, Laird makes use of Martin Buber's distinction between, on the one hand, an I-It world, in which the self objectifies and classifies the world of other, and on the other hand, an I-You mode of interaction which describes "our unobjectified relation to another presence," as a way of understanding Oliver's delineations of knowing and being. The "I-You moments produce the surges of deeply felt, precognitive responses that are poorly translated to specific labels in an I-It world"—yet which are readily evoked in the slippery associativeness of the poetic image, of the fluid interplay of points of perception available within the "drift" of poetic form. As Laird puts it:

Despite the fact that language necessarily diminishes presences to object, Oliver clearly believes that poetry can call attention to the fact that we dwell in a world of presences...The question is not how to know this world...although as a fine naturalist she encourages this kind of familiarity as well. Even the most extensive knowledge, however, merely locks the object of study in a more elaborate cage, whereas love suggests the resistance of objectification. [12]

The principle of "love" then, as linked to the fluidity and generosity of the drift, is a way of referring to those movements within Oliver's poetic, between seeing, and closely observing, and the integral links between those moments of closely attuned observation and the glimpses of the immeasurable which they might offer:

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding
than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.

This concept of a "deepest affinity" between eye and world, between the various organs of perception and the world which it perceives, offers a model of bi-directional exchange and possibility, where both self and world can be registered as distinct as well as overlapped. What is proffered in this poem is the primacy of engagement with the senses of looking and listening which brings the self once again into a meditative continuum with the natural world, a continuum which the analytic questions of rationality would hinder and obscure.

maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world
in the clasp of attention, isn't the perfect prayer,

but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,

but of pure submission.

If the idea of the "prayer" isn't limited to the structures of an institutionalized religion or "temple," it is nevertheless used within Oliver's poetic as a trope for this "clasp of attention," the capacity—which poetry delimits for us—to look, to pay attention, to reflect, in a state of heightened awareness of the world around us, and not to inductively write ourselves across the specificity of that world. As the short prose poem "The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, but the Attention that Comes First" (p.15) suggests, Oliver postulates an even more complex relation between the experience of looking, of holding the world for a moment in that clasp of intensity, and the process of finding a language to correlate, enact or evoke that experience. In this sense, "Terns," like "The Real Prayers," points back toward the genre of the prayer—as a pivotal moment of equilibrised perception, of mutual if asymmetrical engagement—yet also could be seen to be operating as the prayer, as it draws the reader, via the aesthetic of the image, into its recreation of the moment of looking:

...Tell me, what else
could beauty be for? And now the tide

is at its very crown,
the white birds sprinkle down,

gathering up the loose silver, rising
as if weightless. It isn't instruction, or a parable.

It isn't for any vanity or ambition
except for the one allowed, to stay alive.

It's only a nimble frolic
over the waves. And you find, for hours,

you cannot remember the questions
that weigh so in your mind.

The questions, the desires to know, are still there, they hang in the mind in the present tense—but the image of looking at the rising and falling of the terns, the blue of the sky, the silver of the falling water—provides another way of being, and, crucially, of overcoming the "sorrow" which arises in the void of not-knowing, or not being able to rationally comprehend the nature of the self and its relation to external processes, seeable and unseeable.

[9] The path of the senses, "this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world," is however not the only means to this prayer of attention and reflectivity; indeed as "Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith" (p.130) suggests, we can easily "fail as a witness" to mark the wondrous movements and specificities of the world:

Every summer
    I listen and look
        under the sun's brass and even
            in the moonlight, but I can't hear

anything, I can't see anything—
    not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,
        nor the leaves
            deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
     nor the shucks, nor the cobs.

The poem is a celebration of precisely what can't be seen, and yet which is nevertheless recognized as being present. Like the golden sand of the ocean floor in "Bone," the miracle of the corn—its growth, its beauty and its bounty—confirms the role of faith, of an "unquestioning affirmation" which allows that much occurs without the territorializing impulses of rationality—"all of it/happening/beyond all seeable proof, or hearable hum." Faith, in this context, is not the collapsing of reason or subjectivity into the ideologies of dogma or temple, but rather a position of humility, of seeing the world and its ways as beyond the possibilities of our knowing—and of accepting, rather than railing against this limitation of human logic. Indeed as Oliver suggests in this poem, there is cause for thankfulness because it is this precise failure to witness and to know which makes possible a space for what she here describes as "the immeasurable," bringing with it the Hopkins-like voltage of ecstatic vision:

And therefore, let the immeasurable come.
    Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
        Let the wind turn in the trees,
            and the mystery hidden in dirt

swing through the air.

The invocatory voice welcomes the mystery, the lightening bolt of what is unknowable and yet also known to be "hidden in dirt"—both somewhere unexpected, and also the stuff of the earth, the heaven of the grass and the weeds. It is a transfiguring sequence of images, sweeping the humble images of a field of growing corn into the possibilities of radical transformation. The final stanza of the poem echoes the ancient Eleusinian mysteries, [13] where, in a ceremony to both accept and to integrate the earth goddess Demeter's enormous loss of her daughter Persephone, the priest holds up, as a final gesture, the ear of corn. The child is lost, and thus there is an irreparable hole in the fabric of being—but the sight of the "honeycomb" of ripe corn signals the possibility of some sort of return. Whatever limit and loss has been endured, and however fundamentally incomprehensible this might be, the growth of the corn is visceral, tangible testimony to the possibilities of faith and continuity:

One morning
    in the leafy green ocean
        the honeycomb of the corn's beautiful body
            is sure to be there.

[10] In "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches" (p.141), Oliver offers another interweaving of images of interiority and the external, natural world in order to draw our attention to those points of overlap and connection. How is it possible to think beyond an I-It, territorializing approach - "Do you think this world is only an entertainment for you?" How is it possible to sympathetically, perhaps even actually, participate in the being-ness of that which is other to the self? The fragrant intensity of Oliver's images suggests a way forward:

Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches
    of other lives—
tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey,
from the branches of the young locust trees, in early summer,
    feel like?

Once again, the exhortation is to leave the rational and the known, comfortable paths—"Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!"—and to move out into the world, to listen and look, to pay attention. In such a state of alertness, of willingness to think beyond a sense of self as sovereign, as a speaker of the language of dominance,one might even hear "a curl or two of music, damp and rouge-red" from the "stubby buds" of the wild roses. Significantly, however, it is not only what can be heard as emanating from elsewhere, but Oliver's vision also entails the interactive empathy of the creative imagination. The poet, the reader, the mystic, who sits listening in the grass may hear not only the voice of the grass but, because of the act of listening, is able to participate in a dance—a dance in which the creative, inscribing imagination listens and speaks, listens and speaks. The poem here echoes Whitman's own use of biblical inventory, the listing of the parts of perception that accrete rather than fragment:

To put one's foot into the door of the grass, which is
    the mystery, which is death as well as life, and
    not be afraid!

To set one's foot in the door of death, and be overcome
    with amazement!

To sit down in front of the weeds, and imagine
    god the ten-fingered, sailing out of his houses of straw,

Nodding this way and that way, to the flowers of the
    present hour,

to the song falling out of the mockingbird's pink mouth,

to the tiplets of the honeysuckle, that have opened
    in the night.

To sit down, like a weed among weeds, and rustle in the wind!

The poem presents a model of meditative receptivity, where the self is able both to listen to a "You," and to proffer the activity of human desire, with its possibilities of creative agency. It is the desire of the speaker which leads her—and which challenges us to follow—out of the comfortable paths of rationality and explicability, and into the open fields of beauty, specificity, difference and mystery which are to be found there. The images of the poem—as indeed throughout Oliver's poetic—take as their task the recreation of that experience in the field and away from the desk, in order to lead us, with her, to the moments of clarification or even transcendence in which inner and outer find their point, or image, of convergence:

Meanwhile, once in a while, I have chanced, among the quick things
    upon the immutable.
What more could one ask?

And I would touch the faces of the daisies,
and I would bow down
to think about it.

The "immutable," or indeed the Immeasurable, can be found only among the transience of the observable "quick things," the cyclic passages of change and decay. The paradox of perception, like the Eleusinian mysteries, takes us out of time even as we are profoundly and inevitably embedded within the life and death cycles of the temporal. "That was then, which hasn't ended yet," she describes this perpetual present which is linked to the coming upon, or the recognition of, the mystery. It can't be found by determinedly seeking it out; it is not to be found as the goal on any path of intention. But a life spent in humble attention to the world of nature—or indeed in close attention to a poetic such as Oliver's which reproduces in Wordsworthian "tranquility," [14] the humble and ecstatic engagement of self with world—makes those moments of clarity possible.

Now the sun begins to swing down. Under the peach-light,
I cross the fields and the dunes, I follow the ocean's edge.

I climb. I backtrack.
I float.
I ramble my way home.

This track of human movement then is never clearly delineated. There may be a path to go or to make—but it is a way which must be felt out, imagined into by each of us in our turn, improvised through the processes of listening and looking, and all the complex interplay of desire and receptivity, passivity and activity, which they contain. In "Have You Ever Tried the Long Black Branches" Oliver evokes the idea of "home," suggesting that all this rambling and drifting will nevertheless return to an anchor point of reference, an evocation of that emotional and perhaps physical site which provides a rationale and a shelter from the all that the winds of drifting's open fields might bring—exposure, dissolution of the fragile balance of the self, perhaps even too much mystery. In an earlier essay/poem "Upstream," [15] Oliver juxtaposes that notion of a human home—here epitomized by her anxious parents looking for her—with another kind of reference point, "The sense of going toward the source." The essay recalls a following of the connections of the natural world, a day spent as the girl pursues each clue, each metonymic source of "violets, Dutchman's breeches...ferns rising so curled," each taking her further away from her changeling life within the human world. "Upstream" might be the wrong way in human terms, but in terms of paying attention to the world, of accepting the challenge of the drift, it may prove to be the right way after all:

If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles...I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home. [16]

This delineation between points of pause and rest which the embodied self experiences and the idea of a source of the immeasurable, is reiterated in the essay "Wordsworth's Mountain":

...we might, in our lives, have many thresholds, many houses to walk out from and view the stars, or to turn and go back to for warmth and company. But the real one—the actual house not of beams and nails but of existence itself—is all of earth, with no door, no address separate from oceans or stars, or from pleasure or wretchedness either, or hope, or weakness, or greed. [17]

Oliver's poetry is a prayer for attention to the fecund interrelation between self and world; it is a powerful visceral call to engage with a philosophy and an aesthetic of the drift. We may become lost, we may lose sight of the small light of home on the vastness of the plain or the ocean—but only in the act of losing, of ceding the fantasy of rational control, can we become open to the possibilities of drifting, and the various moments of finding we never expected.


[1] Mary Oliver, "Upstream," Blue Iris: Poems and Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004, p. 53.

[2] Mary Oliver, "Terns," New and Selected Poems, Volume Two, Boston: Beacon Press, 2005, p. 34. All references to Oliver's poetry are taken from this edition unless otherwise specified.

[3] Olive, "The Swan," Winter Hours :Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999, p.27-28.

[4] The question of epistemology, of structures and anchor points of knowing, is of course a recurrent and inevitable concern within a wide range of contemporary poetics for the post-pastoral to the post-modern - because it highlights the equivocal and dialectical relation between notions of self and other, and between the self which perceives and articulates and the world which is perceived.

[5] As Adrienne Rich has noted, these limits on the possibilities of poetic speech, are "an old theme even for me:/Language cannot do everything - ," "Cartographies of Silence," The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978, p. 19. In this sense, poetic language can always be seen to operate on a cusp between silence and speech, where silence is not only the not-yet articulated, but where it also functions as a marker of excess, and the possibilities of the extra-linguistic.

[6] Cf. also Alice Fulton's exploration of this engagement between the world of perception and the world of the poetic imagination in her poem "Shy One," which, like Oliver's poetry, suggests the need to "meet the universe halfway./Nothing will unfold for us unless we move toward what/looks to us like nothing; faith is a cascade." Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004, p. 60.

[7] Cf. for example Diane S. Bonds, "The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver," Women's Studies, Vol. 21 (1992): 1-15; Mark Johnson, "'Keep Looking': Mary Oliver's Emersonian Project," The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 46, 1 (Spring 2005): 78-98; Janet McNew, "Mary Oliver and Tradition of Romantic Nature Poetry," Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, 1 (Spring 1989): 59-77.

[8] Laird Christensen, "The Pragmatic Mysticism of Mary Oliver," J. Scott Bryson (ed.) Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002, p.140.

[9] Rich, "Transcendental Etude," Dream of a Common Language, p. 73.

[10] Judith Wright, "Falls Country," A Human Pattern: Selected Poems, North Ryde: Angus and Robertson, 1990, p.176. "What does the earth say?/...Listen. Listen..../There is/there was/a country/that spoke in the language of the leaves."

(11) Wright, Cf. "The Shadow of Fire: Ghazals":"I've no wish to chisel things into new shapes./The remnant of the mountain has its own meaning/... Human eyes impose a human pattern,/decipher constellations against featureless dark," A Human Pattern, pp.235, 241.

[12] Laird, "The Pragmatic Mysticism of Mary Oliver," pp. 139-140.

[13] C.f, for example Frazer's description of the Eleusinian mysteries as alluded to in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Macmillan: London, 1974, pp.517-525.

[14] Cf Wordsworth's famous description of "poetry [as] the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." William Wordsworth, "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" (1800), David Perkins (ed.), English Romantic Writers, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967, p. 328.

[15] Mary Oliver, Blue Iris, pp. 52-56.

[16] Mary Oliver, Blue Iris, p, 53

[17] Mary Oliver, "Wordsworth's Mountain," Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, Cambridge, Mass: Da Capo, 2004, p.24.

Works Cited

Bonds, Diane S. "The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver," Women's Studies, Vol. 21 (1992): 1-15.

Christensen, Laird. "The Pragmatic Mysticism of Mary Oliver," J. Scott Bryson (ed.) Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002.

Fulton, Alice. Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

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