I HAD GEARED myself up for a sort of Job-God exchange between Mary Oliver and some wild roses in the aptly named “Roses,” from her latest collection of poems, Felicity.
This is the scene: The narrator, full of poetic angst and existential fatalism, approaches some huddled roses and wonders in their direction: “What happens when the curtain goes / down and nothing stops it, not kissing, / not going to the mall, not the Super Bowl.”
I was ready for the roses to respond in a whirlwind full of rhetorical questions about the wonder and origin of creation. Instead they deflect the inquiry: “‘But as you can see, we are / just now entirely busy being roses.’”
And I laughed. In the past, Oliver’s poetry has caused me to cry over a dog (see “The First Time Percy Came Back”) and pray accidentally (see “The Summer Day”), but never before had her poems made me laugh.
In her 2014 collection Blue Horses, the flowers are “fragile blue.” They are “wrinkled and fading in the grass” until the next morning when somehow they crawl back up to the shrubs, bloom a bit, decide they want—just like all of us—“a little more of / life.” Now, in her latest collection of poetry, Oliver’s flowers are red, and they want as much life as they can get. They are carefree roses with a love of causal banter and a kind distaste for troubling existential questions.
What’s the first thing you think of when you think poetry readings by a Poet Laureate and a Pullitzer Prize winner? Well, whatever it is, I’m sure you weren’t thinking dogs.
Nonetheless, pet dogs were brought up more than anything else during poetry readings by Billy Collins and Mary Oliver at the Strathmore in Bethesda, Md. on Sunday. They managed to bring up their dogs in a beautifully poetic way, of course.
But perhaps the most important take away from the evening came from Oliver during a question and answer time after the readings. She said something like this: “Pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it. We’re soaked in distractions. The world didn’t have to be beautiful. We can and should think about that beauty and be grateful.”
Those are words I have tried to live by for the last year.
Both poets demonstrated that attention in their work — even in poems about dogs.
When Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis departed on his three-month sabbatical at the beginning of January, I sent him a list of books, films and music that I thought would nourish his mind and spirit in, perhaps, different ways than the media he normally consumes do.
Jim's sabbatical — a true Sabbath in the literal sense — is designed to be a time of rest and, more importantly, rejuvenation. It will also be a creative time when he will be working on a new book.
Jim is a creative. A writer. A visionary. He regularly digs deep into his heart and soul, breaks himself open and pours out his passion, hope and faith for the edification of others. If creatives aren't diligent, though, we can work ourselves into the ground. Our wells can run dry.
In sending Jim this list of what I like to think of as "soul food," I hoped to inspire his imagination and give him new fuel for the fire, if you will.