I was in the back yard this morning playing my Irish tin whistle, and minding my own business when two sparrows landed on the glass top table and looked up at me before flying off again. I felt like friggin Orpheus! The sun rose over the flood wall. A crow cawed in the field which I discovered is filled with wild basil, thyme, and oregano. Any time I want, I can pull up a bunch, and breathe the smells in. If Mary Oliver had shown up and written a poem about it, I would not have been at all surprised.
Why don’t I write a poem about it? Pastoral poems take us back to the obvious. We become awed by the sheer fact of natural matters. Look: Grass! Tree! Junco! Sparrow! Jay! Look: deer nuzzling the fallen crab apples, their coats honeyed as the soft morning light. There is always a chance people, mean, heartless, normal folks, will say: “so what? Big deal! I see crows every day.” But do you? Are you sure?
A pastoral poem always risks being absurd because the poet is awed by the obvious. It’s as if you had lived with a woman for thirty years and then noticed, all of a sudden, that she lives with you, that her existence matters greatly. To be surprised by the obvious is one of my favorite experiences: It’s six am. There’s a coffee sitting beside my book of John Clare poems. The sun helps the white pine cast its most flattering shadows. The ground hogs are not so ubiquitous, and the chill in the air means fall is pulling in and due to arrive momentarily. I need to wear a sweater now when I sit at my table. The other morning my breath turned to smoke as I played, and I was elated.
My friend Joe Salerno once complained to me that poets write too often of human relations. Even when they write about nature, they do so in a way that stains it with the human. It always pissed me off when Mary Oliver wrote about grass hoppers eating sugar from her hand--as if she was the earth mother. I don’t believe her. I’ve seen Mary Oliver. I’m not a grass hopper, but no way, I’m taking sugar from that woman.
So what made me so happy this morning that I almost wrote a nature poem? I think it was the absence of me as I exist in the world of human relations. My tin whistle sounded good. The sparrows were a nice surprise. There were no geese on the hill, shitting every where. I didn’t have to please anyone, regard anyone. I realized that, even if I lose my job, and end up homeless, I have a whistle, and I can still stare at the world around me. All the bad things that have happened to me, including the deaths of most of my family, the absence of a wife or children, are not so bad, at least in moments like this—when I’m playing and the sun rises over the flood wall, and Mary Oliver doesn’t show up to make it all palatable and understandable to poetry addicts who turn nature into one more appointment, one more thing on their “busy” schedule. I’m not busy! I have escaped the American criteria for a “meaningful” life. Later, I will have to go to school and teach, but I think I’ll tell my students to learn how to be alone—to stare into space. Jesus was right: consider the sparrows. They neither sow nor reap, and yet God feeds them. Of course, this only lasts for an hour at best, and I wouldn’t eat what sparrows eat. I’d sooner take a lump of sugar from Mary Oliver’s hand! Slianthe’