“Everything” a poem by Mary Oliver to Celebrate National Poetry Month

by Guest Blogger, Joy Heaton*

Have you ever experienced a moment when you thought “this is everything!” and you wanted time to stop so that you could hold it forever? Perhaps it was kissing a first love, watching a surreal sunrise, or holding a cooing newborn. Everything becomes clear, pure, and transcendent. Your thoughts, feelings, desires, and terrors all disappear in a light called Eternity. But, as we all know, time cannot be stopped and moments cannot be captured…except perhaps by an artist’s brush or a poet’s pen.

EVERYTHING     by Mary Oliver

No doubt in Holland,
when van Gogh was a boy,
there were swans drifting
over the green sea
of the meadows, and no doubt
on some warm afternoon
he lay down and watched them,
and almost thought: this is everything.
What drove him
to get up and look further
is what saves this world,
even as it breaks
the hearts of men.
In the mines where he preached,
where he studied tenderness,
there were only men, all of them
streaked with dust.
For years he would reach
toward the darkness.
But no doubt, like all of us,
he finally remembered
everything, including the white birds
weightless and unaccountable,
floating around the towns
of grit and hopelessness––
and this is what would finish him:
not the gloom, which was only terrible,
but those last yellow fields, where clearly
nothing in the world mattered, or ever would,
but the insensible light.

 Pulitzer Prize- winning poet, Mary Oliver, invites us to ponder the truth and clarity of these illuminated moments in her poem, “Everything,” about the artistic sensitivity of Vincent van Gogh. This poem draws sharp contrasts between the carefree boy and the disillusioned man, the dark mines and the sunlit fields, the laborious work and the idle leisure, the reaching and the unreachable, the black dust and the white birds, the hopelessness of reality and the hopefulness of eternity. 
Oliver captured in words what van Gogh brushed onto canvasses; the clarity and brightness of light when juxtaposed with darkness. Even in death, van Gogh may have been reaching for a light that transcended time and held illusive bliss.
The curse and blessing of artists like van Gogh is the ability to see the world in a different light and to pursue that light until all that seems different is recognized as variations of light on a starry, starry night.
* Dr. Joy Heaton is Executive Director of Just Compassion, Inc.  Her doctoral thesis at Columbia Theological Seminary examined the practice of attentiveness as expressed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver.
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“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”

We grow accustomed to the Dark-

When Light is put away-

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp

To witness her Goodbye-

A Moment- We uncertain step

For newness of the night-

Then- fit our Vision to the Dark-

And meeet the Road-erect-

And so of larger-Darknesses-

Those Evenings of the Brain-

When not a Moon disclose a sign-

Or Star-come out-within-

The Bravest-grope a little-

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead-

But as they learn to see-

Either the Darkness alters-

Or something in the sight

Adjusts itself to Midnight-

And Life steps almost straight      —Emily Dickinson

I can remember as a child, being fascinated by how my “night vision” would kick in shortly after all the lights were out. At first it’s like you are blind but then slowly you begin to make out shapes and realize that all that is familiar is still there in the room.

In this poem I love the imagery of the “Neighbor” holding the lamp so that the light falls on her face as she pauses at the door to turn and say her goodbyes before setting off into the dark night. But it is the image of the night’s darkness as a metaphor for our mental darknesses that is so brilliant. Those “Evenings of the Brain” devoid of all light, both moon and star, when we experience the total darkness of grief and loss, despair and hopelessness.

At first we are blinded and can do little more than grope in the darkness. But if we just hold on, slowly the eyes of our soul will adjust. Maybe our life will be forever changed but we will continue to step out onto the road of Life and find it “almost straight.”