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The Swan / Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is the best-selling poet in America by a long shot. And her life, mostly in Provincetown, Massachusetts but in her last years in Florida, produced some of the most celebrated nature poetry of the age.

As a gay woman with a fair amount of trauma in her life (listen to the excellent On Being interview with her) she managed to tap into the numinous and healing in the natural world with such beauty.

Some of her work is so widely anthologised as to be almost invisible ("Wild Swans" anyone?) but this poem from her New and Selected Poems Vol. 1 is fresh and startling. There are nods to Wallace Steven's Sunday Morning and its wide waters and the almost annihilating intensity of the swan's approach makes me think of death. Or God? Or Rilke? (Who also wrote a beautiful poem about the swan). And of course, Yeat's swans at Coole too.

The Swan

Across the wide waters

something comes

floating - a slim

and delicate

ship, filled

with white flowers -

and it moves

on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn't exist,

as though bringing such gifts

to the dry shore

was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.

And now it turns its dark eyes,

it rearranges

the cloud of its wings,

it trails

an elaborate webbed foot,

the color of charcoal.

Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do

when that poppy-colored beak

rests in my hand?

Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband's company -

he is so often

in paradise.

Of course! the path to heaven

doesn't lie down in flat miles.

It's in the imagination

with which you perceive

this world,

and the gestures

with which you honour it.

Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those

white wings

touch the shore?

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