Week Nine: “Bird” and “Of Power and Time” by Mary Oliver and Selected Poems

“Bird” by Mary Oliver

Discovering Mary Oliver’s poetry leaves one with the same breathless wonder felt as a child waking up on the first morning of a delicious vacation at a summer cottage. There will be everything to explore ; there will be the fields, the woods, the rock beach, the meadows.

There will be all of it, laying ahead of you in sun and shadow.

The poet Stanley Kunitz once said, “Mary Oliver’s poetry is fine and deep; it reads like a blessing. Her special gift is to connect us with our sources in the natural world, its beauties and terrors and mysteries and consolations.”

Indeed, much of Oliver’s writing deals with the outdoors and with a grand, vital celebration of life.

Yet within this celebration the author often turns her considerable talents inward to contemplate mortality. Certainly she’s explored this with great mastery in works such as “Poem for the Anniversary” and many others.

Here for your consideration today is Oliver’s brief essay entitled “Bird.”

“Bird” is from Oliver’s latest essay collection, Upstream (note: in some earlier publications such as this magazine excerpt, it was called “The Christmas Bird”.) The selection was suggested by Wonderlings book club member Shabnam Mirchandani. Enjoy! Have you visited Upstream?

“Of Power and Time”

Another brief glimpse into Mary Oliver’s collection, Upstream can be had in this week’s second selection, the essay “Of Power and Time.” Here, Oliver discusses the charge given to artists who would be both in creative space and of the world at large. Do you work creatively? If so, how do you carve out time and space to honor this? And let’s explore this question: must we venture into a wild place to create true art?

Here is “Of Power and Time” by Mary Oliver.

Two Poems

As supplemental reading to Oliver’s essay collection, it’s worthwhile to explore any one of her many, fine poetry collections (the reading and discussion of these could fill the syllabus of a college course for several years).

If you are new to her poetry, here is an excellent starting place: “Why I Wake Early,” read by the author:

And “Morning” (from New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Beacon Press, 1992):


A bit about Mary Oliver . . .


Mary Oliver has received many honors for her poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award

A private person by nature, Oliver has given very few interviews over the years. Instead, she prefers to let her work speak for itself. And speak it has, for the past five decades, to countless readers. The New York Times recently acknowledged Mary Oliver as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Born in a small town in Ohio, Oliver published her first book of poetry in 1963 at the age of 28; No Voyage and Other Poems, originally printed in the UK by Dent Press, was reissued in the United States in 1965 by Houghton Mifflin. Oliver has since published many works of poetry and prose (the complete list appears below).

As a young woman, Oliver studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but took no degree. She lived for several years at the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upper New York state, companion to the poet’s sister Norma Millay. It was there, in the late ’50s, that she met photographer Molly Malone Cook. For more than forty years, Cook and Oliver made their home together, largely in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005.

Over the course of her long and illustrious career, Oliver has received numerous awards. Her fourth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She has also received the Shelley Memorial Award; a Guggenheim Fellowship; an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award; the Christopher Award and the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for House of Light; the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems; a Lannan Foundation Literary Award; and the New England Booksellers Association Award for Literary Excellence.

Oliver’s essays have appeared in Best American Essays 1996, 1998, 2001; the Anchor Essay Annual 1998, as well as Orion, Onearth and other periodicals. Oliver was editor of Best American Essays 2009.

Oliver’s books on the craft of poetry, A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance, are used widely in writing programs. She is an acclaimed reader and has read in practically every state as well as other countries. She has led workshops at various colleges and universities, and held residencies at Case Western Reserve University, Bucknell University, University of Cincinnati, and Sweet Briar College. From 1995, for five years, she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College. She has been awarded Honorary Doctorates from The Art Institute of Boston (1998), Dartmouth College (2007) and Tufts University (2008). Oliver currently lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the inspiration for much of her work.

(official biography from Oliver’s web site)


For further enrichment:


Walden Pond, Morning

In her writing and interviews, the writer Mary Oliver often acknowledges her stylistic and inspirational indebtedness to several well-known male authors of New England/Early America; Whitman, Poe, Emerson and Thoreau . . .

Indeed, Oliver’s collection Upstream mentions these iconic Transcendentalist authors often and lovingly.
Similarly, in his Wonderlings interview, the wilderness guide and “Marginalia” author Michael Engelhard also recommended reading Thoreau for inspiration.
In particular, this essay, “Walking” (Engelhard actually emailed it to us as a “PS” to his interview.)

Thoreau wrote “Walking” toward the very end of his life, as a visionary explication of the “absolute freedom and wildness.” Per Thoreau, one needs “wild and dusky knowledge” more than lettered learning. Thoreau undercuts the notion of “Useful Knowledge,” preferring instead “Useful Ignorance” or “Beautiful Knowledge.”
It seems fitting to pair it here, as Oliver echoes some of these same sentiments in her work.
The work, while long, is conveniently divided into manageable sections which can be enjoyed as mini-passages or all at once as you wish. Enjoy this peripatetic read . . .

Also try this link from The Atlantic

The Complete Works of Mary Oliver


No Voyage and Other Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1965)
The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (Harcourt Brace, 1972)
Twelve Moons (Little, Brown, 1979)
American Primitive (Little, Brown, 1983)
Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986)
House of Light (Beacon Press, 1990)
New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press, 1992)
White Pine (Harcourt Brace, 1994)
West Wind (Houghton Mifflin,1997)
The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo, 2000)
What Do We Know (Da Capo, 2002)
Owls and Other Fantasies (Beacon Press, 2003)
Why I Wake Early (Beacon Press, 2004)
Blue Iris (Beacon Press, 2004)
Wild Geese (Bloodaxe, 2004) (UK)
New and Selected Poems, Volume Two (Beacon Press, 2005)
Thirst (Beacon Press, 2006)
Red Bird (Beacon Press, 2008)
The Truro Bear and Other Adventures (Beacon Press, 2008)
Evidence (Beacon Press, 2009)
Swan (Beacon Press, 2010)

Chapbooks and Special Editions

The Night Traveler (Bits Press, 1978)
Sleeping in the Forest (Ohio Review, 1978)
Provincetown (Bucknell University Press, 1980)


A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt Brace, 1994)
Blue Pastures (Harcourt Brace, 1995)
Rules for the Dance (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)
Winter Hours (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
Long Life (Da Capo, 2004)
Our World, with photographs by Molly Malone Cook (Beacon Press, 2007)


At Blackwater Pond (Beacon Press, 2005)
Many Miles (Beacon Press, 2010)


Mary Oliver’s page at the Poetry Foundation
Mary Oliver at Poets.org
Mary Oliver fan page on Facebook


Week Eight: Walking in Two Worlds: Visiting our Ancestors in “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and “No Name Woman”


“The Way to Rainy Mountain” by N. Scott Momaday

N(avarre) Scott Momaday was born in 1934 into a Kiowa Indian family in Lawton, Oklahoma. Before graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1958, he attended the University of Virginia and met William Faulkner, who exerted a strong influence on his writing.

In The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday expands upon Kiowa folktales; in particular the Journey of Tai-me. The journey invokes both the personal and the archetypal  through an elegant montage blending both legend and Momaday’s personal memoir.

We read of the tribe’s three-century migration from Yellowstone to the Great Plains, and Momaday’s personal reflections on the land the people and the ghosts of his ancestors.

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” is also the standalone prologue essay of the book, setting the stage for an impeccable depiction of the people on, in and through the land, told in a way which goes well beyond literary personification or anthropomorphism.

Says Momaday, “None but an Indian, I think, knows so much what it is like to have existence in two worlds and security in neither.”

Here is “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” one of Momaday’s most-beloved essays. I hope you’ll give it a read and share your thoughts.


A bit about N. Scott Momaday . . .


N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday was born in Lawton, but grew up on the Navajo Reservation. Momaday earned his M.A. and Ph.D degrees from Stanford University in 1960 and 1963 respectively. He has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs and beliefs, and is also recognized as one of the most successful contemporary Native American literary figures. Momaday’s writings are greatly influenced by oral tradition. He is professor of English at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a consultant of the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts since 1970. He is a known poet, and as well, an accomplished artist whose work appears at The Smithsonian, The Art Institute of Chicago and in many other places.




Awards and Honors

Academy of American Poets Prize, 1962
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1969
Guggenheim Fellowship, 1966/67
National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1970


Excellent information on Momaday and many others can be found at the site Modern American Poetry.

Momaday’s involvement with the making of Ken Burn’s The West (PBS) can be found here.

Momaday’s address to the U.N. http://www.wisdomoftheelders.org/un-address-n-scott-momaday/

For information on the kiowa: The Oklahoma Historical Society


Also see this Video on Kiowa dance:


“No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston


The womanwarrioCover_womanwarrior

Maxine Hong Kingston has played a leading role in establishing the personal memoir as a literary form, drawing narrative inspiration from the “storytalkers” of her Chinese-American girlhood.

Her very first book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976) was named by Time Magazine as one of the top ten nonfiction books of the 1970’s.

In her award-winning book Kingston blends autobiography and mythology, outer world and inner being.  First published in 1976, it has become a classic in its portrayal of numerous intersectional personas—female, Chinese, immigrant, American.

From reviews:

As a girl, Kingston lives in two confounding worlds: the California to which her parents have immigrated and the China of her mother’s “talk stories.”   . . .A warrior of words, she forges fractured myths and memories into an incandescent whole, achieving a new understanding of her family’s past and her own present.
Here is the essay “No Name Woman”, by Maxine Hong Kingston.  It’s the opening segment of her book. Let us know your thoughts!


A bit about Maxine Hong Kingston . . .


Maxine Hong Kingston is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who operated a gambling house in the 1940s, when Maxine was born, and then a laundry where Kingston and her brothers and sisters toiled long hours. Kingston graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1962 from the University of California at Berkeley, and, in the same year, married actor Earll Kingston, whom she had met in an English course. The couple has one son, Joseph, who was born in 1963. They were active in antiwar activities in Berkeley, but in 1967 the Kingstons headed for Japan to escape the increasing violence and drugs of the antiwar movement. They settled instead in Hawai‘i, where Kingston took various teaching posts. They returned to California seventeen years later, and Kingston resumed teaching writing at the University of California, Berkeley.

While in Hawai‘i, Kingston wrote her first two books. The Woman Warrior, her first book, was published in 1976 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, making her a literary celebrity at age thirty-six. Her second book, China Men, earned the National Book Award. Still today, both books are widely taught in literature and other classes. Kingston has earned additional awards, including the PEN West Award for Fiction for Tripmaster Monkey, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and the National Humanities Medal, which was conferred by President Clinton, as well as the title “Living Treasure of Hawai‘i” bestowed by a Honolulu Buddhist church. Her most recent books include a collection of essays, Hawaii One Summer, and latest novel, The Fifth Book of Peace. Kingston is currently Senior Lecturer Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley.

Per Bill Moyer’s Journal:

“Maxine Hong Kingston began writing at the age of nine (“I was in the fourth grade and all of a sudden this poem started coming out of me”). She won her first writing award-a journalism contest at UC Berkeley-when she was sixteen. In 1976 THE NEW YORK TIMES praised her first book, THE WOMAN WARRIOR, comparing it to Joyce’s PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, saying, “It is an investigation of soul . . . Its sources are dream and memory, myth and desire. Its crises are crises of the heart in exile from roots that bind and terrorize it.” At the age of thirty-six, she was a celebrity, winning the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Other books would follow, and the praise would continue to be unstinting. In 1980, she was named a Living Treasure of Hawai’i by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai’i.

In 1991, following a massive fire in the Oakland-Berkeley hills that consumed Maxine’s house and the only copy of her manuscript-in process, THE FOURTH BOOK OF PEACE, and as the first President Bush was ordering the invasion of Iraq, she began offering writing and meditation workshops for veterans, to help them give voice to their experiences and work toward personal peace. As she’d hoped, the writing became a process of healing and renewal not just for the veterans but also for Maxine. She drew on the experience of these workshops in THE FIFTH BOOK OF PEACE.

In 1997, Maxine Hong Kingston was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton. In March 2003, she was arrested for crossing a police line at the White House as part of a CODEPINK action to protest the Iraq War.

She retired last year from her career teaching literature and creative writing, mostly at UC Berkeley, where she was known for offering personalized instruction to each student, even in auditorium-sized classes, encouraging “real communication.”


Kingston receiving the National Medal of Arts  from the President of the United States

Bill Moyer’s Journal interview:  http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/05252007/profile.html

A podcast interview with Kingston from The National Endowment for the Arts

Week Two: Why We Need Nature Writing by Robert Macfarlane


Robert Macfarlane

Also in Week Two we considered an article from The New Statesman entitled “Why We Need Nature Writing.” Robert Macfarlane is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His award-winning books include Mountains of the Mind  (Granta) and The Old Ways (Penguin). This essay is Macfarlane’s rebuttal to Mark Cocker’s interrogation of “the new nature writing”, published in the June issue of The New Statesman.

Can the nature writer be a mere “weekend excursionist” appreciating and reporting what he sees, or must one be an environmental activist? Is there a middle ground? Can excellent and evocative nature writing cause one to love and therefore wish to protect the earth?

Read Macfarlane’s essay here.

And be prepared to purchase every book of nature writing he recommends . . .his enthusiasm is infectious! Also check out Holloway, a lovely and lyrical book by Macfarlane et al.recommended by member Anna Schantz.


In July 2005, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin – author of Wildwood – travelled to explore the holloways of South Dorset’s sandstone. They found their way into a landscape of shadows, spectres & great strangeness. Six years later, after Roger Deakin’s early death, Robert Macfarlane returned to the holloway with the artist Stanley Donwood and writer Dan Richards. The book is about those journeys and that landscape.

Week Two: “Marginalia: An Essay”: A Wonderlings Book Club Interview With Author/Wilderness Guide Michael Engelhard


Engelhard’s bookcover, depicting fantastic slickrock in southeastern Utah

Michael Engelhard is a writer and wilderness guide.

Says Engelhard;

I first discovered storied landscapes as an anthropology student. Accompanying Native Alaskan elders on hunting and fishing excursions, I shared in the place-based experience of people who maintained fluency in nature’s idiom to an unequaled degree. Each slough, each mountain pass, each peregrine roost or bear den spoke to them of a past that is also present. The landmarks and associated stories express a worldview as much as they embody knowledge. They focus the traditions of people whose history and self-image largely reside in the land. They define homeland rather than wilderness. They endure as part of a moral universe, eloquent reminders that continue to shape the identities of groups and individuals.

 . . .As a wilderness guide and writer I not only unearth extant tales but also sink roots deep into landscapes, creating new stories that drive and sustain me.

In “Marginalia: An Essay”, a trek across the Arctic, a wildlife guide’s map becomes a record of his journey.

Read Engelhard’s essay here.

Recently, the author very graciously took time to respond to Wonderlings member questions and comments. “I enjoyed the readers’ feedback very much and am glad they enjoyed the essay.”

Acknowledging the essays the group read by Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane, Engelhard said ” I’m a big fan of Mark Cocker also — absolutely love his Birds and People. And felt honored that he reviewed Ice Bear in The Spectator.”



“When writing about your explorations have you ever personally experienced a feeling of an ideal configuration or a kind of synchronicity in your description, a moment when you fully rendered that crossing of a threshold from “looking” to “seeing”?  (submitted by Shabnam Mirchandani)


Actually, the introduction to American Wild, which addresses my love for the Colorado Plateau and the Arctic forced me to contemplate why I continue to be drawn to these two particular landscapes and I discovered commonalities I had never before seen: the long sightlines, sparse population and vegetation, even the quality of the light . . . also my deeper motivations for doing things and the “lessons” learned from an experience only truly take shape during the writing. That’s one reason why I usually have a good idea how and where an essay begins but hardly ever, where it takes me – and the reader.


Can you tell us a bit about the trip which inspired Marginalia?


That trip was about the hardest physical and mental endeavor I’ve ever undertaken. It was a project I’d been dreaming about for decades. Whenever I guided up there, I felt there was never enough time to explore all the places I wanted to see. (Of course, there never would be.) But the magnitude of it intimidated me. Plus, summers are when I make most of my living so taking a whole one off for a personal trip (and the cost of the expedition, too) was a considerable sacrifice. But ultimately, because of the wakeup-call of a client on another trip who soon after unexpectedly died of cancer and because every year you get older certain things become harder to do, I embarked.


The author Michael Engelhard guiding a paddle raft on a commercial trip on the Canning River, the western boundary of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.



Given the climate change facts of today, can the lyric nature essay or poem be a form of meaningful activism? What causes you to care more about climate change- a science report or a walk in the wilderness? Or a combination of both?


It’s not “activism” – it only can sensitize and alert readers to the issues. But to me, signing petitions or forwarding information on the Internet also doesn’t qualify as activism. I’m a bit of an Abbey-ite, I guess: activism is throwing a wrench into the system responsible for degrading Nature. Anything from consumer boycotts to protests, from labor strikes to eco-sabotage. Investigative journalism, in my opinion, is more a form of activism than a lyrical essay is, much as I love that literary form.


What’s next for you? Is there any place calling you?


I’d like to finish my aborted Grand Canyon hike, the 40-day adventure described in No Walk in the Park, another essay in American Wild. The falling out with my hiking buddy that ended it left a bad taste in my mouth, which I don’t want to be the defining memory. I also need this (another 20 days, perhaps) for closure. In general, I am not drawn to foreign, exotic places. So I want to explore more of my two favorite regions: Alaska’s Arctic and the Colorado Plateau. I would like to hike entire large landscape features, such as the Comb Ridge monocline – a rocky escarpment in southeastern Utah – or a Brooks Range river from its source to the Arctic Ocean.


More reader comments and responses:

Loved reading the piece…I was imagining the map “taped at the folds” his writing all over it…very evocative…it’s a beautiful piece and I wanted to read more…(Esha Chakraborty)

Thanks, Esha. There’s an abridged version of the essay here that even has some image of the maps http://www.hcn.org/issues/45.16/marginalia-an-essay

I’ve always taught that writing is communicating, that if the reader’s eyes stop because they don’t comprehend something you’ve written, then you’ve probably lost them. This concept was always directed at beginning writers who inevitably feel it’s their duty to impress the reader with their vocabulary, using a longer word when a smaller one will suffice. So I’m always enriched when I discover a writer who can use the language with such expertise and cunning. To me, this essay, so complex and demanding of the reader, is a microcosm of his journey. The complexities he suffered through must have been enormous, and this so cleverly written essay is the perfect window for that. I have yet to read his novels, etc, but after having read this, I certainly will. (Timothy Wright)

Thanks, Timothy. To me, it’s not always as simple as “a shorter word is better than a longer (or technical) one” – there is sentence rhythm (number of syllables, etc.) to consider, alliteration, or sometimes you just want to jolt the reader with the unexpected choice. I’m a huge fan of T.C. Boyle, who doesn’t mind sending his readers scrambling for a dictionary. But in general, I agree: simple is often better, and there are usually enough synonyms to find the right word without resorting to Latinate forms.

Arctic, maps, snow, ice, no trees, no people, heck at times no daylight!
But I dove in and really enjoyed the essay… I was able to read the authors funky map scribble notes “arctic walkabout” which was interesting since I’m a little familiar with the Australian Aborigine Walkabout”
After this article, I will never look at a map the same….. (photos were great)
I’m ready for my own walkabout with maps and “felt pens of various colors” to scribble my own funky notes. (Rick Williams)

Rick, when I went, in the Arctic summer, it never got dark! I love Chatwin and Songlines, and have written myself much about the “sacred geography” of the Navajo and other Native peoples. Actually, my background as a cultural anthropologist strongly influences my writing.


Author Michael Engelhard

That is what I’d call breathing the story. Such excellent compression it seems too short and I am left wanting more of the tingling descriptors, of absence, of allness. The writing was as fresh as the terrain, clean, head turning. (David Delaney)

Interesting comment, David. Part of the reason I kept extensive notes on the trip was that I didn’t want to forget anything. (I didn’t bring a camera.) But I’d also played with the idea to turn the adventure into a book. I gave that up quickly, because, for a publisher it was not dramatic enough: no near death experience, not other people to write about. No major disasters at all really. But I think in its extreme condensation, the essay works really well and is true to the emotional content of this journey.

Loved it. The semiotic narrative of a cartographer’s mapping is a journey into a realm beyond physical features of places. It is tied with experience and an overwhelming feeling of awe at the abundance of life that brings topography to life. Engelhard’s sense of interconnectedness of seer and seen, and of a grand cosmic resonance embedded in wild places is a pleasure to partake of in this piece. The psychic import of color, texture, and sound in the memory collage in each of our minds imprints itself so vividly in our recreation of them in language.

Your luminous writing created epiphanies in me just through its cadences, and I felt trepidation mingled with excitement and freedom when you delved deep into “silence’ and “absence”, when all polarities collapsed, along with all constructs of time and space. Wow, it makes one question all assumptions behind formal cartography! (Shabnam Mirchandani)

I’m glad it worked for you, Shabnam. You should write as a reviewer! The things you describe are actually things that keep pulling me back out there and often, when everything falls into place just so, I feel it’s my true home.

As I read this I couldn’t help but think of some films I’ve seen in which the map of a journey is shown and becomes a montage of life events. The physical map became a sort of spiritual cartography…each symbol imbued with provenance. I don’t know if Engelhard received any awards for this lyric work but he certainly deserves to! Lyrical and full of internal rhyme and deeper import. (Celeste Schantz)

Every short autobiographical piece written is a montage, almost by definition. And we still think of life (and most films) too much in linear terms. But lived live (or what has been called a “flow” experience is multi-dimensional, non-directional. I like the idea of “spiritual cartography.” Every object out there is imbued with “unseen” dimensions, which we only perceive at the best of times. This is called “animism” in anthropology: the belief that even rocks and clouds have a spirit. That may sound woo-woo to some people, but certainly works for the Nature writer. (But beware the pitfalls of anthropomorphism, Ruskin’s “pathetic fallacy.”) 

Editor’s Note:

After interviewing Engelhard, I received this email from him, entitled “PS”:

I was just thinking about Shabnam’s question. The way it was phrased, I took it to be about the writing process. But now, I think she might have wanted to know about “looking” versus “seeing” in instants during my explorations .

Here are two examples of true seeing (which sometimes seems to occur in correlation with length of time spent “out there”):

Compelled by sudden unease, I once switched banks hiking along an Arctic creek, only to round a bend and rouse a bruin with her two cubs right where I would have been stepping. Another time, I noticed Boykinia spiking a slope. Knowing that the white flowers are catnip to grizzlies, I wondered if there were any close by. And lo, when I hollered, one popped from a ravine thick with alders I’d been about to cross.  



Our sincere thanks to Michael Engelhard for his great generosity in participating in this discussion.

You can read more about Michael Engelhard and his work here.