Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Remembering Mary Oliver

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 21•19

It’s Monday, a day off for many people as we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior and it’s dawned gray and wet. Storms walloped through our region lately with high winds and battering downpours. We’re now in for a week of quieter weather and I’m thinking ahead to new plants and flowers to sow. Wondering what’s going to emerge from the ground as the days lengthen and warm.

In February of 2008, on an evening thick with gloom and rain, I drove downtown to meet another writer. She’d contacted me with a generous offer: dinner and an evening listening to Mary Oliver at Portland’s Arts and Lectures series.

I ordered risotto for dinner, we talked about our lives and writing, and later found our seats in the old theater that hosts the series. When white-haired Mary Oliver stepped out on stage after an extensive introduction and thunderous applause, I was struck by her smallness. From my seat in the upper balcony she also appeared frail, but then she began reading her poems and that notion vanished. Some were her best known like “Wild Geese” and some from a new collection and in the hushed auditorium we were swept up into images and moods and emotions.

Then came the portion of the evening where she answered questions that had been posed by audience members. I remember several things that really struck me: how she possessed a wry, sturdy, self-deprecating wit; her open grief at her partner Molly Malone Cook’s death in 2005; and her frank admission of the terrible loneliness that followed. I knew that Cook’s death followed years of deterioration from Alzheimer’s. Through her answers and comments she talked about her dog, her walks in the woods, the practice of paying close attention to everything around us, and how writing and art can heal.

You know how sometimes when you’re in the presence of great art how it’s deeply quieting? How something weighty shifts in your chest and your breathing comes easier? That’s what happened that night. I walked out into the night, feeling both stilled and uplifted and somehow full of grace.

I mulled over how poetry is such a solace and refuge. I’d also felt these effects listening to W. S. Merwin when he visited Portland. Since then neural research has shown that poetry and music have a similar effect on the brain. Yet another reason to read and listen to poetry.

In February of 2013 I visited San Francisco and had a chance to see Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. The painting surprised me because it was much smaller than I had imagined, but it was also far more profound than I had imagined. I hovered nearby drinking in every brush stroke, gazing at the pearl for the longest time imagining how he painted it with that tiny glimmer of luster, loathe to move on, loathe to leave it’s presence. And yes, that beautiful quieting happened that day too.

Because in the end the artist, the poet, the musician has allowed us into some inner sacred space, where art and artist are revealed, where art speaks like music speaks. Where a shared a vision and communion feels like walking together.

Here are musings from Oliver on the necessity of creativity. I hope when you have the opportunity to meet artists and writers and musicians whose work speaks to you, that you’ll make time to be in their presence.

And another thanks to that generous writer for a powerful experience.

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