A New Year, a new intention (“resolution” is too scary!) to write more frequent Scrips…
After many grey mornings, today I’m watching the sun come up into a patch of blue sky zigzagged by the golden streaks of aeroplane trails. It’s a small patch, and the clouds are approaching, but its brightness is a moment of solace in wintertime.
I’ve learnt to find more of these moments recently, especially since I’ve been back in England, where everything doesn’t die away as brutally as in the north-east USA. Yesterday I saw roses, and a tree anticipating spring with pink blossom. Daffodil shoots are spiking the roadside verge, and you can see the slight bulges of their flower-buds. But still, it’s cold, and there’s bad weather coming, I hear.
A dear friend gave me a lovely card-book, The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel, illustrated by Angela Harding (Candlestick Press). This writer doesn’t minimise winter’s harshness, especially for the wildlife:
“No birds sang. A solitary tree creeper searched an alder’s bark, in much the same way a caretaker will check under the auditorium seats for rubbish after a concert…How dismal the jay’s nest looked against the blank sky…a wren, small as a moth, peered at me. It was too feeble to tisk its default alarm.”
On alder and briar he notices the evidence left by rabbits and deer nibbling and scraping for survival. But there are glimpses of brightness: the holly tree, the same one his grandfather cut Christmas sprigs from, stands vivid with berries; the vixen glows red in the falling snow.
Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours is a collection of prose and poetry in which she’s not presenting “a formal persona, as my books of poems certainly do,” but “revealing, a little, my private and natural self.” The title essay begins:
In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness. Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of the spirit. The sprawling darkness of not knowing.
Oliver lives in New England, where winter is not for the faint of heart. She evokes her winter day, beginning in darkness, and her work of writing poems, when she tries to set aside ego and intention, and listen:
“…almost a voice, almost a language. It is a second ocean, rising, singing into one’s ear, or deep inside the ears, whispering in the recesses where one is less oneself than a part of some single indivisible community….”
She says, “I could not be a poet without the natural world.” But she isn’t an environmentalist, lamenting human misdeeds—not that she doesn’t recognise them, but “What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing…” Oh, I want to quote all her clear, lovely words, about the “flame of appreciation that shoots from my heels to my head” when she notices some small but ravishing movement of leaf or insect; about how “Living like this is for me the difference between a luminous life and a ho-hum life.” And also: I am sensual in order to be spiritual.”
She writes delicately, seriously, of her search, at this time of her life, “past reason, past the provable, in other directions.” She is attentive to “the spiritual side of the world” and her own “spiritual state,” and by spirituality she means “not theology, but attitude.” “Unproven but vivid intuitions” count most for her now; she sees “a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else.”
She speaks of the soul; of a soul in everything. But paraphrasing her words takes all the mystery and power out of them; you must read for yourself the paragraphs leading to where she says attentiveness to the grass, the sky, the floating bird, is like prayer, and ending:
“I too leave the fret and measure of my own life. I too dip myself towards the immeasurable.”
As I work on my new book, I’m finding that the idea of the soul is continually arising out of the material; “unproven intuitions” fascinate me, as I explore the nineteenth-century struggle to find something real to hold on when all the Christian dogmas began to fall away. Wintry dark, Oliver’s “sprawling darkness of not knowing,” seemed intensely threatening.
Is seeking the immeasurable like learning to find colour in winter? I tried to do that in a poem, “Looking at a Painting: Wintry Mix” (in Sudden Arabesque). “Wintry mix” is what, back in Pennsylvania, they call the snowy-sleety-icy precipitation of the round-freezing mark. The poem says—so truthfully!—how I’ve always “loathed the winter’s long austerities,” but the painting showed me that even in winter there’s colour, if I look:
….shadowings of blueness, of maroon,
purple and indigo, dove grey
and mauve, reveal their subtle shade
in winter, if I open my eyes, whose irises,
like everyone’s, change colour as the light comes in.