Sunday, October 02, 2011

Mary Oliver: "Some Questions You Might Ask"

Some Questions You Might Ask
by Mary Oliver

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
Who has it, and who doesn't?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

~ from New and Selected Poems, Volume One, 1992


Barb said...

I have this volume, but I don't remember this poem. Mary Oliver writes in such a straightforward manner - as though she's speaking directly to you. Her "plain talk" always makes me think.

steven said...

it's the great space that opens up around her words that pulls and pushes all at once. i want to know the answers to these questions and then i want to tell everyone but that's the beauty of what is - that it dances in the darkness and the light of its own design. steven

ds said...

Ahhh, Mary Oliver. How soothing she is, like falling into an empty field and looking up, floating. I read these questions, and am back at Rilke's field of this morning (or for me a couple of hours ago) and am content with her gentle insistence that we look. And see. And wonder.
Thank you, Ruth.

Ginnie said...

This reminds me of Yentl, dear sister, telling the Yeshiva students that her rabbi father had 10 questions for every answer. One could certainly do worse than to think up all the possible questions and not worry about the anwers!

Ruth said...

Barb, I've had this volume two years, and I only just found this poem myself. I hadn't picked M.O. up for a few months, and I craved her childlike gratitude.

Ruth said...

Steven, that's a great comment. Like you, I love this mystery, maybe more than I would love answers.

Ruth said...

ds, your comparison with M.O. and Rilke today is well felt. The way he seems to float above the world in observation is much the way I see her too. To observe as poet, to know both the gentle experience, and the storm, and to speak it quietly, these are traits I value in both of them. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Boots, it's true! One of the joys of life (mine anyway, and yours too, I know) is that with age the mysteries only get more delicious.

Louise Gallagher said...

What a gift to read M.O. this morning here.

Her questions sparkle like sunlight on the water -- dancing, spiralling, they take me deeper into knowing beauty. Truth. Love. Mystery.


George said...

Thought-provoking, as Mary Oliver's poems always are. I find soul in your lovely photo; I think that the soul has myriad attributes, too many to understand or describe; and I think that it's possible that there are not individual souls for every creature and thing, but rather one soul to which we all belong. Maybe the journey calls upon us to see our own souls in the maple tree, the blue iris, the stones, the moonlight, the roses and lemons — and, most importantly, in the eyes and souls of each other.

erin said...

mary oliver is someone very special, isn't she? and this poem is, for me, very important. i love the arbitrary specificity of this poem, (just learned this term - thank you, james:) the naming of all those little things which might have a soul.

the other night listening to Arvo Part's Alina i noticed that under the video someone had written, there are three people without souls. somehow the perversity of naming them as a number delighted me so intensely. it draws us real in this world, makes our observations seem important.

i have to have gratitude in this world like Mary Oliver, or i don't quite feel here.

upon my back
every lash

it is a hard, hard life

at my knees


Ruth said...

Yes, Louise, her words and questions sparkle like a hummingbird's throat, as simple and impossible as that and your dancing sunlight on water!

Ruth said...

George, how beautiful! One soul, yes . . . one Life, our Life. Thank you for the light I see in your windows of, and into, our one Soul!

Ruth said...

erin, you embody mystery and give her voice. You are my teacher.

Yes, gratitude. Am I grateful for the alternative [to gratitude] when I see it? I am not, and so I must not quite be there at utmost gratitude for all things as they are.

I can change what's in my head.

Heather said...

I love the moose in this poem. Reminds me for a moment of the Elizabeth Bishop poem--which I also love.

Grandmother said...

M.O.'s questions shake up our species' centeredness. What if we lived as if all the things she named have a soul just as we do? Why should I have it and not the camel?

elizabeth said...

Mary Oliver is so simply and gracefully astounding.
Such questions --yes, a little like Rilke.The cartoonist Roz Chast has some of that questioning wonder.
Maybe when you stop asking questions is when you start shutting yourself off from the possibility of .....

hedgewitch said...

I like the framing of this eternal question better than the similar well known koan "Does a dog have buddha nature?" The whole purpose of that koan, or so I've had it explained to me, isn't to meditate indefinitely on all possible answers, but to insist that the student learn to realize how foolish it is to even have to ask it.
A beautiful way to start the day, (and wash the train dust of my own less than grace-filled poem off my tongue.) Thank you, as always Ruth, for offering the wayfarer a benison here.

Oliag said...

Well I always did think that maple trees had does grass, and lemons, and and and...:)

I often compare your poems to Mary Oliver's when I read them...I love both!

Ruth said...

Heather, oh Elizabeth . . .

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood . . .

And now you remind me how Diane taught me to see Jesus in the face of Elizabeth's fish . . . five old pieces of fish-line . . . [the five wounds of Christ] Diane said. How did I not see it?

In poems like Mary's and Elizabeth's, they give us all the details, and we provide the meaning.

Thank you.

Ruth said...

Mary, what if we lived that way? Oh indeed, honoring the spirit in everything. It's just listening, really, isn't it?

Ruth said...

Elizabeth, oh Roz Chast! I've loved his cartoons since high school when I first started looking at the pictures in The New Yorker. :-) And yes, the possibility of possibilities. Very well said.

Ruth said...

Hedge, I appreciate what you wrote, which is to me the contrast between shame and praise.

I'm happy you could rest your weary self from hot coal blues here, my friend. You and your fine commentary are always a treat, and your poetry a delight.

Ruth said...

Oliag, such kind generosity, thank you. I'm definitely in M.O.'s school, listening to her breathlessly, and taking notes.

Peter said...

So many questions... and we will probably never have the definite answers? Do we want them?

missing moments said...

I so love Mary Oliver, peaceful beauty just like your work.

Pauline said...

Mary Oliver makes life so accessible. Her word choices often take my breath away!

Brendan said...

Forget the next life with its closed cowl; forget about the otherworld with its faux-lunar sea. What about this one perfect utterly breakable life, with its hundred roots and raptures? Enquiring minds need to know what Oliver wonders. Thanks Ruth - Brendan

Marcie said...

I love Mary Oliver's poetry. I can always find something that speaks to me. Thank-you!

Arti said...

Ruth, I don't know if you've seen it or not, but no matter. This poem conjures up memories of the film The Tree of Life, wherein questions were whispered and answered by visuals with music or silence. Questions just might be the mark of us being humans, in contemplations of the incomprehensible and sometimes, the unanswerable. Thank you for introducing Mary Oliver to me. I admit yes, for me, this is an exciting intro. Think I'll read more of her work.