I started coming to East West in 2013- this was when the store was still on the corner of 65th and Roosevelt. I was like most people that come in here for the first time, or maybe every time-- a seeker. The first time I came in I spent hours perusing. As I made my way around the store I ended up sitting on the floor adjacent to the front desk in the poetry section. This wasn’t a very large section but I figured if they had the book at East West it was probably for a reason.
I picked up a collection of poems by Mary Oliver and opened to a poem entitled Everything.
I want to make poems that say right out, plainly,
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister
the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be
songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.
At the time I picked up this book I was contemplating graduate schools for creative writing. I had just attended a reading at a local school and walked away feeling at once hopeful and lost. I had recently begun writing poetry after years of focusing on short stories and screenplays. But what kind of poet was I? So much of what Mary Oliver said in this poem felt true for me too.
I want to write with quiet hands.
I thumbed through both of her collected poetry volumes and ending up leaving with them that day. Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems Volumes I & II were the first two books I purchased at East WestFast forward to today-- January 17, 2019-- I am a co-manager at East West, I am in graduate school at Naropa University currently finishing my first collection of poems, and Mary Oliver dies at 83 years old. I had that moment where I wished she had been able to know that she had a hand in my life. Oliver did what all artists do, contemplated life. Her modern psalms explored the natural and spiritual world and asked her reader, “How are you going to live?” Oliver did exactly what she said she wanted to do in the poem, she used plain language- unhidden from the reader her observations stood as landmarks for their exact time and place. I have found in my own work, this is a very difficult thing to accomplish. It makes you vulnerable. For this, I consider Oliver to be very brave. She was a quiet person, one that gave few interviews because she wanted the work to speak for itself. For this, I consider her to be very brave as well. She didn’t find the need to explain.
As I flip through this volume now, a single line strikes me.
Don’t think just now of the trudging forward of thought,
But of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation.
I think I will leave you with that.
Mary Oliver was an American Poet, National Book Award recipient and Pulitzer Prize winner. Her latest collection, Devotions, as well as other works, are available at East West Bookshop. Mary Oliver passed away on January 17th, 2019. She was 83 years old.