Mary Oliver
(born 1935)

Mary Oliver:
"Such Singing in the Wild Branches"
from Owls and Other Fantasies (2003)

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. I love her writing about nature and insights on everyday life. One of her poems "Some Questions You Might Ask" (1990) inspired my "Speculations on the Soul" (1993). But my favorite Oliver poem is "Such Singing in the Wild Branches" sent to me by a friend on March 24, 2006 to wish me "Happy Spring". What Oliver has described here it the satori experience many yoga and Zen masters experience but are left speechless and prefer to remain silent. When Zen Master Kakuan (12th century) saw the final stage of enlightenment depicted as an empty circle in the "Oxherd Drawings", he added two more scenes— "Returning to the Source" (oneness with Nature) and "The Sage Enters the Market Place" (oneness with humanity). He felt that the sage should not enjoy his bliss in solitude, but be actively engaged in helping others to realize their true nature. Oliver's "gravity sprinkled upward like rain rising" reminds me of Dante's ascent to Paradiso after Beatrice tells him he's not earthbound (Paradiso I.93). Oliver takes on the responsibility of the poet in writing about the ineffable. But she wants the reader to experience that "pure white moment" she enjoyed by exhorting us in her last lines "Quick, then— open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song / may already be drifting away." (Peter Y. Chou)

Such Singing in the Wild Branches (2003)

It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves—
then I saw him clutching the limb

in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still

and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness—
and that's when it happened,

when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree—
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,

and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward

like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing—
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed

not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky— all, all of them

were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn't last

for more than a few moments.
It's one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,

is that, once you've been there,
you're there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?

Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then— open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

— Mary Oliver, "Such Singing in the Wild Branches"
     Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays,
     Beacon Press, Boston, 2003, pp. 8-9

Academy of American Poets: Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver's Poems on Gratitude
Mary Oliver's Poems on Peace

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (3-3-2007)