“the project” isn’t dead. It will remain alive as long as I remain alive. I just have to realize that it will be in complete flux, which involves veering in and out of the project. My belief systems constantly change. Constantly. I just have to learn to accept this! And realize that, whatever happens, I am accreting knowledge and, with any luck, hope.
by Dauphine Sb
I do get vertigo. When the oil runs out, we shall go to our cabin on the lake,
and I should be 60 or 70 then. When the oil runs out I will get vertigo
thinking about ways to protect my children—but they will be
thinking about ways to protect me.
We have a deed. Maybe deeds won’t
matter anymore. When I say the oil
“runs out”, it’s a figure of speech. There will
be a little oil left. But most people
will make do without. My children
will bicycle the seven miles into town
for rice and flour and batteries.
We await their return, keeping busy by scuttling
the old speedboat close to the dock. Up to our knees
in the warm water, the baking sun. How swiftly the clouds
clog the sky.
“The anonymous lyric, including the riddle and the metrical charm,
appears to have been gradually eclipsed by the emergence of an elite and
self-consciously literary tradition of poetry, but these ancient modes and
forms did not vanish altogether, nor are they absent from the dominant
tradition. Rather, as these poetic models slipped into the shadows, they
became part of a vital and complex vernacular tradition: spells, oaths,
lullabies, and nursery rhymes; yet also curses, toasts, tongue twisters,
namings, recipes, work songs, vendors’ cries, and beggars’ chants; in addition
to counting and alphabet songs, love tokens, spitting words, insults,
and the like. ” —Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance by Daniel Tiffany
I see Mary Oliver a lot in pagan/naturalistic religion social media, and even in liturgical settings. With all the literally thousands of poets out there, I wish this were not the case. Her work hits all the right “nature buttons” but scratching beneath the surface I find not only banality but an active insistence on a self-centered perspective, all while being self-congratulatorily self aware as a “nature poet.”
There are a lot of bad Mary Oliver poems, but “Singapore” in on another level, perhaps because of its globalist, airport setting brings in issues of class and race that, well, only amplify the most problematic aspects of Oliver’s work:
Singapore In Singapore, in the airport, a darkness was ripped from my eyes. In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open. A woman knelt there, washing something in the white bowl. Disgust argued in my stomach and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket. A poem should always have birds in it. Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings. Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees. A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain rising and falling. A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem. When the woman turned I could not answer her face. Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and neither could win. She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this? Everybody needs a job. Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem. But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor, which is dull enough. She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as hubcaps, with a blue rag. Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing. She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river. Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird. I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life. And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and fly down to the river. This probably won’t happen. But maybe it will. If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it? Of course, it isn’t. Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only the light that can shine out of a life. I mean the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth, the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.
Stylistically of course, this is the “declarative sentences with line breaks” school of normative American poetics, which is very very hard to do in an interesting way. It’s possible, of course, but the voice here is full of aphorisms and a general blandness. Some people like clarity for its own sake, but clarity has to serve a purpose.
This post from a couple of years ago from Nicholas Liu sums up many of my feelings about the poem very well:
Awfully charitable of Oliver–I’m tired of this “speaker” pretence, to be honest–to accept working class POCs as part of the world. It’s such a comforting construction, too, the working class as “part of the world”, like lichen or wildebeest, loving their simple little lives. With “Singapore”…there’s no need for the middle to upper classes to try (and fail) to reconcile the displeasure they’d feel at doing a cleaner’s work for a cleaner’s pay with our collective gentleperson’s agreement that others should go on doing just that.
I should also add that Mary Oliver is all-too eager to “naturize” a worker on the bottom of the ladder:
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river. Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.
(Seriously, I know people will think that these lines are profound…but how? This baffles me more than anything else.) What she’s doing here is treating another human being as animal, as river–but (and this is important) not from an animist perspective. Far from it. Because she is the one filling the poem “with trees, and birds.” Her own position is fixed, as observer, writer, and–ultimately–a transient, travelling back to the United States where she can write further poems and win awards.
The reader, of course, is supposed to do cartwheels over Oliver’s compassion and vision. But I call bullshit.
What is perhaps more readily apparent in “Singapore” is nonetheless present in nearly all of her work: an insistence on “the Mary Oliver show, starring Mary Oliver” at all costs, while at the same time deploying poetic strategies to make it seem like this is not the case at all, that she is, at all times, one with nature. I think this is the height of sanctimony, and not the good kind.
Broader thought: what does it mean that she’s so popular? What does it reveal about the assumptions of the communities that love her?
This is 2 years old but, well, really fucking good:
Living plants have been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died 32,000 years ago, a team of Russian scientists reports. The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of northeastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago.
If this had happened hundreds of years ago, it would have easily fallen under the aegis of a resurrection myth. What interests me most about this (aside from the beautiful flower) is that arctic ground squirrel.
32,000 years ago, this little one* was gathering seeds on the permafrost. The burrow got buried and sealed. The squirrel has been long gone but from those seeds there is new life, with a direct throughline to the middle Paleolithic. Every act is insignificant/significant. Every act is a throwaway/gift.
*or reasonable fascimile
Enough theory for now. Time to get to work.
I’m creating ritual excursions and exercises under the umbrella of something I’m calling “slagcraft.” These are provisional and I might be making tiny changes to them as I go on.
How to Turn Your Smartphone into a River
Face towards China, where most of the valuable components of your phone were likely mined, and where the phone was invariably assembled. Place the smartphone in both hands, cradling it. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Feel your breath going into the phone. Think through this phone. What does it mean to you?
Now let these meanings go. Say:
You are glass.
You are platinum.
“COLDER THAN A ROSE.” (H.D.)
You are gold.
You are copper.
You are silver.
You are light, bright, and loud.
WE REQUEST DISASSEMBLAGE
Then feel your hands inside a river, feeling the current on your skin. Turn over the phone three times slowly, then set down the phone. Next pick up the cup of water. Say:
As this has passed from mine to factory to ship, bless the tailings and corrosions. They are our tailings and corrosions, and our blessings. As this river flows from the earth to our hands, may its life run like our lives. And when it empties into the sea of un-use, as we will, may it prove to be without harm and purely put to rest, as we desire for our bodies. “The sea refuses no river.” (Townsend)
Splash water on your hands and rub them together.
Next is the invocation of the rare-earth elements present in the phone. These rare metals are not inherently benign, but it is important to acknowledge their presence in the material world.
Hail, yttrium, prince of synthetic garnets!
Hail, lanthanum, crux of the Prius!
Hail, cerium, spark of cigarette lighters!
Hail, praseodymium of the faux peridot!
Hail, neodymium, the magnet and the incandescence!
Hail, europium, red traveller of the phosphor!
Hail, gadolinium, cryptic salt of dialysis!
Hail, terbium, margrave of sonars!
Hail, dysprosium, chimera of the control rod!
Dry your hands with a towel and pick up the phone again. Close your eyes and acknowledge the elements, and then the river. Say:
In the river of matter, let us be naiad.
So shall we flow in our flaws.
With the camera, take a photo of your face. Keep this photo as a tiny digital relic of this transformation. Repeat:
So shall we flow in our flaws.
The ritual is complete. After the invocations, and throughout your days, if you have any twitchy desire to check it unnecessarily, repeat this invocation quietly to yourself:
River river I shan’t look down
Buttercup, buttercup drift and drown
(Optional: Let the stillness be your friend
Until you come to life again)
When properly transformed into a river, your smartphone can be your constant companion. Take care of it, as you would any river.