Sea-green helmets

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, September 6, 2019


By far, the two most important and far-reaching things we did this summer were tiny in the enormous scheme of it all: We spent $8 and got a hummingbird feeder, like millions of other people before us; and we borrowed “Devotions” by the poet Mary Oliver from the library.

These two very ordinary things were connected by us reading her poetry in the morning and intermittently watching — and sometimes stopping to watch — the hummingbirds at their trough. It was like having the chime section in an orchestra tinkling away, on the one hand the hummingbirds, while the entire orchestra was dropping scores of black notes onto a page, on the other, Oliver.

Like many others, I have always felt a bit threatened by poetry, even in college. As an English major it was part of the core curriculum, so I should have had enough exposure to get comfortable with all of it. Although I worked for a professor whose specialty was Romantic poets (Mary Oliver’s lineage), I picked my way through the minefield of English poetry cagily, like an imposter.

My junior year, having had my heart broken by a British university student poet, I decided maybe I needed to write poetry to gain access to some critically beguiling layer missing from my personality, and took a class with Robert Mezey, the poet in residence at Pomona College, one of the colleges in my cluster. He was a cool guy (much lauded now, and still writing). The English Department there was hip and had things like a yearly goat roast (in 1978), and I signed up. Poems were assigned in rapid succession and flew off the purple-inked barrel of the mimeograph machine and into our hands for consumption and critique. The class was intimidating in some weirdly razor sharp and yet Bohemian way, even more intimidating for me than Latin 101 — a class that went from 14 students to four in a single sitting.

What I recall Mezey saying of one of my poems — after asking, “Can you explain what this poem means?” and expressing what I thought I’d actually pulled off — was this: “What you said? That’s really interesting. But I get none of that in the poem your wrote.” They didn’t spare you back then. No one spared you. Why would they? I wonder what I said in return. Maybe, for once, by the grace of God, it might have been nothing at all.

We began naming “our” hummingbirds almost immediately as they arrived, one by one. It started with first one standing there on the feeder with its miniscule feet, very still, hunched, and beak dunked deep for a long and patient drought of the sacred man-made syrup water. We called him Shoulders. After that, came the rest: Head Job. Tailgate. One was Russel on account of his russet color. They all had personalities and habits and lives, and soon enough we had a whole constellation of dive-bombing, helicopter-precise, denizens buzzing the feeder. Fantastic creatures, so inscrutably miniscule you really just wanted to grab one, put its beak up to your ear and say to it, “Tell me one secret, please. That’s all I need.”

In the early morning, once we’d begun having poetry with our coffee, reading amid thrumming wing sounds interrupted only by the silence of these birds drinking, Mary Oliver would cleave the natural world open further with simple sounding phrases, and then drop wisdom deep into the crevasse to echo there. Poems simple enough to follow with your five senses and sneaky enough to get under your skin. Poems filled with pond water and glinting colors and wind sounds, delicacy, death, poppies, fireflies, pain, extravagance, the vast, the ordinary. Poems about everything, really. The aliveness of stones. Lonely feelings morphing into glorious flowers.

Straightforwardness and spaciousness can be sort of intoxicating, especially to those of us handicapped in the realm of complicated poetry. We might be prone to crying, but only if an image is given enough time and space to do its thing. Now, it makes me cringe to think of all the obscure words and concepts I used to jam into papers and letters (and poems, evidently) thinking to trick people into thinking it was all smarter than it was. Maybe I thought I was pretty good at hoodwinking, until all of it started Humpty Dumpty-ing into a simpler, flintier pile of truth. Maybe Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put back together again because they were putting him together from the outside in, something that really has to be done from the inside out.

“I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem,” Mary Oliver once said, begging the question of paring down; in poems, as in life. How are the essential needs of the poem, or of a life, actually being served? What is essential? And how is it, for instance, that calling hummingbird heads “sea-green helmets” reorganizes us so brilliantly to see better into these elemental mysteries?

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