I put Mary Oliver's 'Wild Geese' on my 101 books list, but 'Twelve Moons' was the one that the library had so I requested it anyway. It has loitered in the living room for a couple of weeks being read intermittently.
At first glance they are quite nature-y poems, but paying closer attention on subsequent perambulations through the collection revealed a wider variety of themes; bears, snakes, wolves, bats and raccoons populate her woods, both threatening and familiar, and a selection of mysterious characters punctuate the list of titles, but all with strong links to the wilder side of life, and based around the twelve poems with moon references. She manages to encapsulate an intriguing tiny story into each poem, they are never mere descriptions.
The snake appears repeatedly, alive:"A black snake, / Coiled in the sun, flutters / Its forked tongue and lied/ Like a stroke of oil over / The path." (Looking for Mushrooms), dead: "Now he lies looped and useless / as an old bicycle tyre" (The Black Snake), and asleep: "they sleep in their cold cauldron: a flickering broth / six months below simmer." (Snakes in Winter). In Strawberry Moon a great aunt is seduced and hides (or is hidden) in shame: "At sixty-one, she took in boarders, / washed their dishes, / made their beds, / spoke whatever had to be spoken, / and no more." A staid piano teacher with a house full of "knick-knacks" becomes something else as she plays: "her eyes luminous and wilful, / her pinned hair falling down - / forgetting, the house, the neat green yard, / she fled in that lick of flame all tedious bond" (Music Lessons). In Lil a child takes bread to an elderly hermit neighbour: "She thanked me, in a voice / sweet as a bell, while behind her / oh the clutter, the dirt! the smell of her lonely meditations!" And an invented relative, Aunt Leaf, a flight of fancy: "While she, / old twist of feathers and birch bark, / would walk in circles wide as rain and then / float back / scattering the rags of twilight / on fluttering moth wings".
The moons do not appear cyclical, just ever present with a kind of watchfulness, observing and, at times, apparently governing what goes on below. So many ways to see the moon: "round and full and milk-white / as a woman's breast" (Flower Moon), "The moon steps lower, / quietly changing / her luminous mask, brushing / everything as she passes / with her slow hands / and soft lips" (Harvest Moon), "you turn in your bed / to watch the moon rise, and once more / see what a small coin it is / against the darkness" (Beaver Moon), "The moon / sinks like the dime that buys nothing anymore." (Neutralities)
The cold, winter, and darkness predominate, nighttime envelops the reader with its dreams and ghosts, but we encounter death as a natural part of life: Here in 'For Eleanor' who is dying of cancer: "Probably, sooner or later, it will snow. / The white flakes will fly over the hillsides / Smoothing out everything, settling / Calm as a sheet over a tired body" but also tragically, one poem beginning "When somewhere life / breaks like a pane of glass" and ending "and somewhere, for someone, life / is becoming moment by moment / unbearable." (Beaver Moon - the Suicide of a Friend). The poems are lyrical without being florid and the descriptions are more quiet and understated. Often the woods become a character in themselves, with intentions and desires. I sent a letter to Monkey containing the poem 'Sleeping in the Woods', it seemed apposite to their current rehearsals for Midsummer Night's Dream: "I thought the earth / remembered me, she / took me back so tenderly, arranging / her dark skirts, her pockets / full of lichens and seeds."
I enjoyed last week listening to this lovely interview over on Brainpickings (probably where I first heard of her), and the more I have flicked back and forth through this little volume of poems the more I like her. It is always a mistake to borrow poetry from the library, for I just get attached to it and then have to return it. I loved the idea of 'an inscrutable presence' so I leave you with this one:
Eight o'clock, no later,
You light the lamps,
The big one by the large window,
The small one on your desk.
They are not to see by -
It is still twilight out over the sand,
The scrub oaks and cranberries,
Even the small birds have not settled
For sleep yet, out of reach
Of prowling foxes. No,
You light the lamps because
You are alone in your small house
And the wicks spluttering gold
Are like two visitors with good stories
They will tell slowly, in soft voices,
While the air outside turns quietly
A grainy and luminous blue.
You wish it would never change -
But of course the darkness keeps
Its appointment. Each evening,
An inscrutable presence, it has the final word
Outside every door.