May 12, 2022

Poetry by Mary Oliver: Read it in the worst times

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Last year, around May, my country was hit hard by the second wave. Every morning brought bad news of one kind or another. Staying awake became a heartbreaking experience in itself as it meant receiving news of the death of someone I loved or once loved. Deaths that could have been avoided had our government been proactive enough to provide adequate medical care instead of wasting money on campaigns and campaign rallies, and other types of antics characteristic of those whose megalomania ru(i)ns the countries. Taking a day off from the unfolding humanitarian crisis in India was not an option for any of us. Not knowing how to be useful in a dying world, I looked for answers in the poetry of Mary Oliver.

I’ve never bought into the idea of ​​loved ones becoming stars after they die. The stars are also deadly. If it was on me, I would have turned them into ether, the negative empty space where the stars float. Unlike stars, ether lasts forever. In the poem “In Blackwater Woods”, Oliver writes: “To live in this world / you must be able / to do three things / to love what is mortal; hold it / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; and, when it comes time to let go. Oliver urges us to never make the mistake of passing up a chance to love or clinging too tightly when his time is running out. Our loved ones may be stars, but what we shared with them is ether. Memories survive time and times when the world seems like a place that doesn’t tolerate joy, revisiting them will keep you fighting for life.

The more our government grew in its apathy towards the suffering of its people, the more Indians resorted to social media to extend whatever resources they had to those in need. In his book Evidence: Poems, Oliver says, “I believe in kindness. Also mischievous. In singing too, especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed. Even though we were far from being able to appreciate the music again, the collective friendliness of the strangers felt like hope. It seemed like the whole country was living by Oliver’s mantra, “Love yourself.” So forget it. So love the world. India was going through a kind of melancholy hypnosis, the kind where you are drawn into days of relief you wish you never had to experience in the first place. But the reading Evidence: Poems made me believe, and quite strongly at that, that hope, in all its shapes and sizes, was just around the corner, waiting for us to find it. And goodness didn’t need to be rationed because it’s never in short supply. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll get a glimpse of a world where animosity and apprehension don’t exist at all!

Regardless of our efforts, tragedies were constantly falling in our world. But despite that, I found joy in a “how are you?” contact me if you need anything” text from a longtime friend. The joy was also there watching from my bedroom window the locked babies grow into full-fledged toddlers on my neighbor’s patio on a particularly sunny afternoon. Was I delusional to still have faith in the world? Feeling that our daily lives will never be full of constant reminders of life? I took Oliver’s Swans: Poems and Poems in Prose and coincidentally, she had an answer, ending my dilemmas once and for all. She says:

If you feel joy suddenly and unexpectedly, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and entire cities destroyed or on the verge of being destroyed. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And many can never be redeemed. The still life still has a possibility.

Those of us who survived the second wave will forever carry the scars of genocide within us. This will not be called “genocide” by history because history is not what happens but who tells the story. However, there is still hope in knowing that not having died together, we may live together. Long enough to ‘rethink dangerous and noble things’ and ‘be light and playful’. And definitely long enough to “be improbably beautiful and fearless”, as if we “had wings”.