Tag Archives: Writing

“Felicity” by Mary Oliver

Is there a book that you like to give away over and over? Is there a book that you turn to at regular intervals in your life? Is there a book that acts as a counsellor, a friend, a comfort, a consoler, a realist, an idealist, a bridge to empathy, a window of light? if there is, then this why books possess an indefinable magic and why, like all great loves, their spirit never truly dies.

“Felicity” by the American poet Mary Oliver is one such book for me. Mary Oliver, who died early 2019, was one of the great American poets of the latter part of the 20th Century and early 21st. Steeped in the transcendentalist vision of Emerson and Thoreau, the exuberance of Whitman, and the eager eye of Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver wrote with brilliant perception about the physical world she immersed herself in, letting the natural world take centre stage and reminding her audience that there are other worlds and other dimensions to taste and relish besides the human one. Her philosophy is one of deep sensitivity, lucid empathy, and a life-affirming sense of expansion, that nothing is too small to be wondered about.

These qualities shine forth in “Felicity”, which examines that most fascinating of topics that interests us all: love. Some of the poems are only a few lines long, yet this is to suggest a disservice as to their merit. Within these parameters, Oliver conveys more sense and beauty that many lesser poets would strive to achieve in poems of greater length and opaqueness. “Felicity” can be read in a quick thirty minute burst from cover to cover but in order to savour the full magic of the writing, it is best to read slowly and fully appreciate each poem for the enriching morsels they are.

Oliver invites us along the journey with the great Persian poet, Rumi, acting as a guiding spirit, injecting the poems with pearls of wisdom, a credo for living and loving, threaded with compassionate humour. There are poems that you will want to declaim in recognition and commit to memory, for the sheer sense of exuberance and aliveness they contain. For example, in “Moments”, the central lines underscores one of the main themes of the collection:

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

These nuggets of learning sit cheek by jowl with poems that more obviously speak of love. In “I Know Someone” , the poet compares kissing with a flower opening and, despite acknowledging a flower’s potent charm to captivate, concludes that ultimately it is humans who are the fortunate ones as we can kiss other humans and realise the supreme and tangible delight of connection.

There is a recurring sense in this collection of 38 poems, that love is the highest ideal that we can aspire to, “love is the one thing the heart craves”. Notwithstanding the pain and affliction that life will throw at us, from time to time, it is a force worth seeking out, worth embracing, and worth singing about. Mary Oliver may have departed from earth, but her poems transcend the mundane and will continue to blaze bright, long into the future. Seize the rich lens of attention, she advocates, and never lose your childlike sense of awe, your acceptance of mortality and, above all, your desire to love. Live while you can, have fun along the way, and wear the cloak of gratitude with unbounded joy.
To put it blithely, these poems capture perfectly why harbouring an open heart and an alert mind are fundamental qualities in a poet, besides a keen sense of the precision of language and an eye for the fitting image, “I don’t want to lose a single thread/ from the intricate brocade of this happiness”. Dive in, at any point, into this book and you will come swimming to the surface in a state of buoyancy – revitalised, refreshed, and reborn.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Authors, Books, Culture, Reading, Reviews

“Talking To My Body” by Anna Swir: An Unflinching Examination of Body and Soul

20131002-183404.jpg

Czeslaw Milosz, the great Polish poet, writes of Anna Swir, in the introduction to this collection, that she is “a poet of personal life, of love and love’s pains.” This, to me, seems a pithy yet perfect summation of Swir’s form and content. Her writing is such, that once you dip into her poetical waters, it is impossible not to want to embrace fully the limpidity of her poetry. Some may quibble that the plainness and seeming unsophistication of the style may militate against placing a high value on the currency of Swir’s poems. This reader would beg to differ. What may at first appear to be a simplicity, conceals profound truths about some of the fundamental themes in life that affect us all.

The diversity of the subject matter helps to make this collection resonate; whether that be poems about her parents, poems exploring the role of femininity, poems that deal frankly with matters of flesh, sex, ageing, mortality, motherhood, childhood and poems that investigate that greatest of emotions: love. This is poetry rooted in an earthiness, delineating the rich textures of daily-life. Abstraction is considered but these are poems that have a concrete foundation and, in their connectedness, celebrate the indomitability of the human spirit.

It has often been said that poetry is a “broad church”, which naturally means there are many definitions of what poetry is. I have always been fond of the brilliant British poet, Carol Ann Duffy and her belief that “poetry, above all, deals with emotion.” The emotional honesty in “Talking to My Body” rings apparent. It is as if Swir has taken a scalpel to her body and exposed the nest of feelings and tangled thoughts beneath. One gets the impression that these poems are written with an intent to impose some order,beauty and meaning on events. The intensity is manifest. Reflecting on the birth of her child in “Maternity”, Swir writes:

“And suddenly I am flooded

by a high, luminous wave

of humility

Powerless, I drown”

The translators have done a magical job in capturing the intensity and depth of feeling that Swir strove for her in her poetry (it seems fitting that Milosz, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, should have a hand in promoting and praising his compatriot’s poetry). There are phrases that leap off the page, which the keen reader will want to cherish and savour: “How good to own/ a portable sun”; “I want to be clean as Nothingness”; I made love with my dear/ as if I made love dying/ as if I made love praying.” One can discern that Swir is triangulating three branches, which might best be described as: thinking, feeling, knowing. For there is no doubt that these are poems for the mind as much as they are for the body and soul.

Perhaps of equal significance to this compelling collection is the discussion at the end between Czeslaw Milosz and his collaborator in translation, Leonard Nathan; the discussion is as much a philosophical investigation of Swir’s form and style as it is interpretive and makes for essential reading. Of course, the poet should have the final word and Swir’s assertion on what she considers the poet to be will, one hopes, strike a chord and may be a springboard for those yet to discover the limpid,earthy and sapient quality of a supreme stylist: “the poet should be as sensitive as an aching tooth.”

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Culture, Poetry, Reading, Reviews, Thoughts

Dawn

The soft sigh of your breath

Wakes me, turns me

Towards you

 

A tenderness stirs within.

 

Your hair cascades across the pillow

Gently,

Natural outpouring of calm.

Fragile eyelids concealing

Untold dreams.

 

Where have you been?

Where are you going?

 

Unexplored mysteries

Condensing like

Droplets of rain.

 

Outside, the sun pierces the cloud

Heralding a chorus of

Bright birdsong;

I hold you,

Steady.

 

A rock amidst the swirling

Sea of life.

 

 

This poem is from my first collection “Upon The Inward Eye”. Perhaps one shouldn’t look back at what one has written previously but being fascinated by the writing process, it is almost impossible not to. To deny what one has written would be to deny a part of one’s self.  I quite like this poem. As I read it again, the other day, something was irking me and what was irking me was the question of flow. The original poem, as published, has fifteen lines. You will see that this version has twenty-one lines. None of the content has changed but I feel with the new line-breaks, the poem has a more fluid ring to it.

Should I have altered this? Who knows? Or perhaps it is a poet’s prerogative to do what he or she wants with a poem, as long as it isn’t mangled beyond all recognition? It is not for me to say. What I do know is that poetry is a never-ending quest, a joyful quest – sprinkled with sorrow and humour – but a quest for meaning and beauty, nonetheless.

And long may the quest continue.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry, Reviews, Thoughts

Some Thoughts after re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray

Drift beautifully on the surface, and you will die unbeautifully in the depths” (Richard Ellmann)

So wrote the venerable American critic when assessing the artistic message of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although Oscar Wilde distanced himself from the idea that his works should have a moral message, he would surely have appreciated the artistic flair that Ellmann displayed in his critical writings. Indeed, his biography of Wilde is infused with a love and a largesse of spirit that Wilde displayed throughout his life and proved, in the end, to be his downfall. Wilde once quipped “I have put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works”. However, such epigrammatic brilliance masks that he did indeed put genius into his works. His place in the pantheon of great writers is assured for he mastered many forms: fiction, drama, poetry, children’s stories and critical essays. Wilde didn’t like his stories for children to be classified solely for children, insistent that they could be read whether you were 8 or 80 years of age. This alludes to an intrinsic aspect of Wilde’s writing: his sense of wonder and amazement at the world around him, key faculties that every child possesses and which are very easy to lose as we grow older. These qualities coupled with his fierce intellect mean that to enter the kingdom of Wilde is to be continually surprised, refreshed, entertained and energised.

There are many writers, poets and thinkers who I greatly admire. But if I was to choose a desert island choice, it would have to be Oscar. Having recently re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray (a book which I have given to countless people), I never fail to be charmed and astounded by the radiance of his writing. When it was first published in the early 1890s, critics were in uproar, labelling it a work of “moral depravity”, implying that it was unbefitting of someone of Wilde’s stature to degrade himself by writing such putrid literature. Perhaps the reason why critics were so upset was that the novel probed some uncomfortable truths that Victorian morality was desperate to suppress. Wilde was unafraid to explore aspects of humanity and life that he touches on elsewhere in his writings: the relationship between art and decadence; the dichotomy of body and soul; the mutable nature of the self, to name a few. The genius of Dorian Gray is that it is a timeless classic. One could argue that it brilliantly predicts the hollowness at the core of modern celebrity, that in the insatiable lust for fame there is a desperate price to pay, namely that of one’s soul.

Wilde’s love of language, delight in wit, playfulness with paradox, command of philosophy and foreknowledge of the future never fails to dazzle the imagination. Dorian Gray is a book that can be read on so many levels. If you haven’t, I cordially invite you to read it and then maybe to dip into his other works. His detractors at the time of his sensational trials in 1895 were determined that that would be the last that the world would hear about this giant of a man. Yet, Wilde would have the last laugh. For like the transformation of the Picture of Dorian Gray back to its youthful beauty at the end of the novel, his writings will remain forever young.

Those whom the Gods love grow young” (A Few Maxims for The Instruction of the Over-Educated)

Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray)

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Reviews, Thoughts