Thursday, March 25, 2010

One or Two Things - March 25, 2010

Don't bother me.

I've just

been born.

The butterfly's loping flight

carries it through the country of the leaves...

for long delicious moments it is perfect

lazy, riding motionless in the breeze on the soft stalk

of some ordinary flower.

The god of dirt

came up to me many times and said

so many wise and delectable things, I lay

on the grass listening

to his dog voice,

crow voice,

frog voice: now,

he said, and now.

and never once mentioned forever,

which has nevertheless always been,

like a sharp iron hoof,

at the center of my mind.

One or two things are all you need

to travel over the blue pond...

some deep

memory of pleasure, some cutting

knowledge of pain.

But to lift the hoof!

For that you need an idea.

For years and years I struggled

just to love my life. And then

the butterfly

rose, weightless, in the wind.

"don't love your life

too much," it said,

and vanished into the world.

Mary has thrown a koan here. We begin the poem in perfectly normal ways. "Live now in the moment, and let go of the future." "Life is pleasure and pain, nothing more accompanies you on your journey of life." But just when you expect her to leave you with the value of lived experience she says it's an "idea" that will remove the weight of death, and oh yes, by the way, don't love too much. I'm seeing contradictions here - does god live in the dirt or in the flutter of wings? Do we love the flowers, or not? Do we experience or do we think?

In the style of qal wahomer, an ancient Jewish Rabbi's teaching device that Jesus used in his parables, the reader is left confused with the contradictions. In the puzzling out and the tension, there remains only one thing left un opposed with binary comparisons. Usually this is "god" or the "kingdom" or "love." What is it here? Is she speaking of one, or two things? ? I have no idea. And the stampede flutters across my heart.

What is your idea under your truth? And what is your truth under your ideas?


  1. From T- I read this poem as you do, with only a slight, but perhaps significant, difference.
    I love the third stanza, about the god of dirt, which is classic Mary Oliver! This stanza is about experience which is the "now", and here she contrasts it with "forever": "he said, 'now', and never once mentioned 'forever'". She also describes "forever" as "a sharp iron hoof", not a totally pleasant or comfortable image.
    To "lift the hoof" you need an "idea". So I put the "forever", the "sharp iron hoof", snd the "idea" into the same camp. I think "lifting the hoof" is our taking action, implementing our "ideas" (being human!)-as opposed to being transcendent in the now. I think MO believes you have to leave the transcendent state in order to act on an "idea".

    But yes! I love how the butterfly warns her not to love her life too much - I think the butterfly, which is part of dirt god's world, knows that "forever" is a product of the human intellect.

    The poem beautifully exemplifies that tension you are talking about, which is inherent in all of us - our perceived human separateness. (The binary you mentioned - I don't think she tries to resolve it.)

  2. I think both of you have described and analyzed it well. I,too, liked the third stanza about the god of dirt.

    I started with forever is the heavy iron hoof. Then, I thought flying over the blue pond might be a metaphor for dying. So before you can get to 'forever' you need to experience both pleasure and pain.
    'To lift the hoof' I couldn't make fit. Did it mean an idea would lift the weight of death or our fear of death or forever? What is the symbolism of the butterfly? The emphasis on the weightlessness of the butterfly bringing a message, might be a foreshadowing that death is near. Maybe she cannot come up with an idea to prevent dying? The butterfly flies off into the world, but it is left with no resolution. I guess we'll never know.

  3. I think the butterfly represents our impermanence -- a deep truth about the nature of reality... one that if we deny or suppress causes great suffering. I think the sharp iron hoof is the suffering we expereince when we deny this truth and the "idea" we need to transcend our suffering is the realization that the moment is beautiful just as it is despite our not knowing what happens after death.

  4. Friends - how does the butterfly begin in this world?