Tuesday, January 12, 2010

One reading of 'Wild Geese'

From Mary Oliver's 'Wild Geese', I love these lines towards the end -

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination

But how does the poem get to that place?

'Wild Geese' starts with -
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You do not have to be good. Is it really a matter of having to be good? In regards to goodness I don't think it's a matter of having to be but a matter of choosing to be that's most crucial. And actually acting in that way, immersing yourself in life instead of sitting in front of a mirror in a remote room wondering, "Am I good? Am I worthy?" And gazing fixedly at the troubled reflection you see.

Then the next line, implicitly linking goodness with what seems to be an unendurable amount of self-flagellation.

Repenting is not a mindless wallowing or indulging in self-affliction. It's interesting to consider, though, how focusing on one's guilt becomes harmful after a certain point, a self-obsession that impedes one's ability to be active and purposeful (both generally in life and in the specific actions undertaken to redress one's wrongs).

And then -
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

That can't be all there is to life. Though it's a part of contentment - those moments when you just want to enjoy some harmless pleasures, or be loved and cuddled and embraced with affection, or find a warm quiet place to lick your wounds - it's still not everything, it's not the best answer to living life wholly and well.

That's not where the poem leaves us either. Immediately after those lines, there's talk of despair:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

But what lifts us out of it?
Meanwhile the world goes on.

Here the poem lifts away from the self and towards great broad things - the rhythms of the world, the language of nature, the sweep of rain and cry of birds. Beyond your own body, the sense of your own isolation and the limits of your pleasures is a whole world; enough of the inordinate self-scrutiny, navel-gazing, obsession with personal faults. Look around - send the mind and senses outwards. When we contemplate the world, study it, hear it, we live a richer life. We become better, and better understand where and how we belong.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--