Upstream by Mary Oliver

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

Upstream, Selected Essays by Mary Oliver lays down in a thousand compelling ways that one most essential truth of life: To live is to give life, and everything that flows in it, your fullest and deepest attention. Oliver’s lilting prose traverses the several layers of ‘looking deeply’ with the playfulness of a child, the graceful sharpness of a master painter, and the desire to understand of an utterly sincere scholar. All with the vulnerability of being truly human.

She pours into the rich cauldron of her essays everything she encounters, or that encounters her. There’s the strand of the river she follows upstream, which is sometimes frozen icy blue. And a thread of Noah, the oak tree she named and whom she kisses on the first day of every spring. There’s a dizzy field of sunflowers and all the other blossoms she honors and surrenders to. And the scent of Walt Whitman, the most luminous of all American poets, who is to her that other lost half of her poet’s road map. And, then, there is a pinch of questions she asks of the world changing too fast, too soon, and too irreparably. She asks urgently, soulfully,

“Doesn’t anybody in the world anymore want to get up in the middle of the night and sing?”

Seemingly light, Upstream is a bubbling treatise on what does it mean to have this experience, this beyond-the-dictionary-magnificent and incomprehensible ‘thing’ that we all are in–a question that has caused thinkers, visionaries and scientists to write tomes upon, since the beginning of it all. Where exact answers seem to leave too much unanswered, Oliver crawls into the mystery of Existence, literally sometimes, ‘looking’ simply, equally and honestly:

Step In (Zahir, 2020)

“Deep in the woods, I tried walking on all fours. I did it for an hour or so, through thickets, across a field, down to a cranberry bog. I don’t think anyone saw me! At the end, I was exhausted and sore, but I had seen the world from the level of the grasses, the first bursting growth of trees, declivities, lumps, slopes, rivulets, gashes, open spaces. I was some slow old fox, wandering, breathing, hitching along, lying down finally, at the edge of the bog, under the swirling rickrack of trees.

You must never stop being whimsical.”

So, she goes altering the reasons for which we exist in this world, making it the most important job on earth to simply look at everything. Foxes, turtles, Canada geese, black-backed gulls and herring gulls, terns, frogs, musk rats, American blue herons, snowy egrets, owls, spider crabs, sea robins, sharks, duckweed, insects, grass… Just look. Isn’t that all one has to do, open one’s eyes, in order to ‘find’ the world we so ardently pray for? All realms are here within this one.

But if this book is about a fuller opening up to life, it is equally a meeting with the darker layers of our soul-material, the impossible ironies of living, the contrasts: The struggle of hunger, death and sorrow, because that’s the other half of being alive. That’s what makes it whole. Here’s a passage that brings into brilliant light one of those sudden moments of “spiritual dilemma” that lull our chaotic brains into simple acceptance of whatever is.

Oliver writes,

“Once, on a October day, as I was crossing a field, a red-tailed hawk rattled up from the ground. In the grass lay a pheasant, its breast already opened, only a little of the red, felt-like meat stripped away. It simply flew into my mind–that the pheasant, thus discovered, was to be my dinner! I swear, I felt the prick of sweet luck! Only secondly did I interrupt myself, and glance at the hawk, and walk on. Good for me! But I know how sparkling was the push of my own appetite. I am no fool, no sentimentalist. I know that appetite is one of the gods, with a rough and savage face, but a god all the same.

Teilhard de Chardin says somewhere that man’s most agonizing spiritual dilemma is his necessity for food, with its unavoidable attachment to suffering. Who would disagree.”

Looking (Mansi Teotia, 2020)

Her honest meditation on “appetite–this other creature consuming appetite” flows into the wish to be “beyond all that”, and into owning an “inherited responsibility” towards all life forms, where you don’t take what you won’t use, and, as often as possible, give something back into the pool, for “…we are lambs and we are leaves, and we are stars, and the shining, mysterious pond of the water itself.”

And the more one forgets oneself, the more one merges with the essence. The spectacular Virginia Woolf said somewhere, “To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is…”

Oliver’s trip is the same as she goes hunting and looking, not just around her, but in the vision of those giant redwoods of literature, whose enduring wisdom we return to again and again: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Wordsworth, and, of course, Walt Whitman. Each of them is a separate essay, and in the essay, a fathoming of their lives, their works, the dark and bright of their souls.

She tells us how Emerson was “adamant that we should look, we must look, for that is the liquor of life”. Could that be repeated, echoed, underlined and applied enough? She divines that his “trick” of writing was that he filled his essays with ordinary things and married them with concepts that were overarching. And isn’t that life as we experience it? And isn’t our confusion the same as Poe’s, which he writes and rewrites into each of his stories: “…the anguish of knowing nothing for sure about the construct of the Universe, or about the moral order within it…?” She says,

“When in “The Masque of the Red Death” the stranger who is really nothing but an empty cloak enters and slays the Prince, it is Poe and it is ourselves with him who rush forward and batter hopelessly against that incomprehensibility, with our frails fists, with “the wild courage of despair””.

Poe’s wild courage of despair, so utterly human, and Whitman’s ecstatic and freeing Leaves of Grass. Oliver drinks from both, opposite ponds, seeking their essence equally, going past the formalities of form and content, both. Of Whitman’s most luxurious and vibrant poem she writes:

“So hot is the fire of that poem, so bright its transformative power, that we truly need, and Whitman knew it…
…There is a madness born of too much light, and Whitman was not after madness nor even recklessness, but the tranquility of affinity and function. He was after joyfulness, a belief in existence in which man’s inner light is neither rare nor elite, but godly and common, and acknowledged.”

Oliver never once ceases to employ what she has learned or has found resonance with, but takes it to heart, to her soul, making Upstream much more than can be expressed. It is poetic and densely scholarly, and astute too. It is not just as though she offers us her kaleidoscope to view this world of myriad forms, but that she is the kaleidoscope herself. The structure of her looking is the structure of her poetry and prose. And what she trains her eyes on is not only itself, but the magic of her ‘looking’ deeply.  She is a wanderer of the world on a constant, reverent high.

“Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In the water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.”

To that we kneel and kiss the ground.

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