Mary Oliver, appositives, and fossicking through “Aunt Leaf”

I do love Mary Oliver’s poems, but I’m always nervous when I start reading a new collection. Her writing is becoming ever more stripped back, and relies on the rightness of her observations, rather than dazzling bravado with imagery. But there are plenty of exceptions to that rule, especially in her earlier poems. One that I love (and which I was going to teach in last year’s Reading for Writing – American Women class, but we ran out of time) is “Aunt Leaf”, from her fourth collection, Twelve Moons (Little Brown, 1972).

Aunt Leaf

Needing one, I invented her –
the great-great-aunt dark as hickory
called Shining-Leaf, or Drifting-Cloud
or The-Beauty-of-the-Night.

Dear aunt, I’d call into the leaves,
and she’d rise up, like an old log in a pool,
and whisper in a language only the two of us knew
the word that meant follow,

and we’d travel
cheerful as birds
out of the dusty town and into the trees
where she would change us both into something quicker –
two foxes with black feet,
two snakes green as ribbons,
two shimmering fish – and all day we’d travel.

At day’s end she’d leave me back at my own door
with the rest of my family,
who were kind, but solid as wood
and rarely wandered. While she,
old twist of feathers and birch bark,
would walk in circles wide as rain and then
float back

scattering the rags of twilight
on fluttering moth wings;

or she’d slouch from the barn like a gray opossum;

or she’d hang in the milky moonlight
burning like a medallion,

this bone dream, this friend I had to have,
this old woman made out of leaves.

– Mary Oliver
from
Twelve Moons (Little, Brown & Co., 1978)

It’s surprisingly opulent for Mary Oliver, with lots of quite beautiful (and eerie) descriptive phrases. It’s still got all her classic touchstones – the natural world, the redemptive aspect of going into the wilderness, moons, leaves, pools and creatures of various types. I love it. But it feels like the poem of a younger woman, if that makes sense. Juiceier. Fuller. Sweeter.

One of the exercises I use in R4W is to analyse and then replicate the structure of a given poem. One stage in that process is pulling out all the descriptive bits, and looking at the simple ‘action’ of the poem. Doing this to “Aunt Leaf” gave me some interesting results. First, the bones of the poem:

Needing one, I invented her –
the great-great-aunt, dark.

Dear Aunt, I’d call
and she’d rise up
and whisper
follow,

we’d travel
out of town into the trees
where she would change us into something quicker
and all day we’d travel.

At day’s end she leave me back at my own door
with the rest of my family,
who were kind,
while she
would walk
back

this friend I had to have
this old woman.

And now the removed bits:

Dark as hickory
Shining-Leaf, or Drifting-Cloud
or The-Beauty-of-the-Night.

Into the leaves,
like an old log in a pool,
a language only the two of us knew
the word that meant

cheerful as birds
dusty
two foxes with black feet,
two snakes green as ribbons,
two shimmering fish

kind, but solid as wood
rarely wandered
old twist of feathers and birch bark,
circles wide as rain
float back

scattering the rags of twilight
on fluttering moth wings;

slouch from the barn like a gray opossum;

hang in the milky moonlight
burning like a medallion,

this bone dream
made out of leaves.

I’m aware that my delineation of a particular phrase as ‘skeletal’ versus ‘descriptive’ (bones versus flesh?) is open to debate. And I haven’t been consistent. (I plead the Whitman.) But doesn’t it make for interesting reading? The stripped-back poem can stand on its own even without the fleshing-out, (although I much prefer it with), and is closer in style and feel to Mary Oliver’s more recent work. But the bit that really amazes me is how close to a poem the flesh is on it’s own! It doesn’t have as strong a sense of cohesion, but it’s got its own wild magic. And given my own tendency to write very linear narrative poems, this could be a way of freeing myself from my usual style – bone-out a poem-in-progress, and do what needs to be done so that it can actually function on its own without returning it to it’s linearity. (A bit like making a ballotine …) It reminds me of an exercise in deepening the texture of a poem I came across in Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion. It’s a chapter titled ‘A Grammatical Excursion’, and looks at using appositives and verbals to increase the detail of your work. (Many public libraries have copies of this book – you can even check for a copy near you on WorldCat.) Despite the scary sounding title, it’s a really interesting chapter. And some useful pointers on deepening your appreciation of (and facility with) syntactic structures.

So many possibilities, so little time …

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4 thoughts on “Mary Oliver, appositives, and fossicking through “Aunt Leaf”

  1. Wow – this has completely blown me away. What a fabulous thing to do. I’m already a fan of M.O. I love her poetic M.O.! I love all three versions you present. And – as you say – it opens up extraordinary possibilities for one’s own work. Thanks!

  2. Fascinating. I enjoy Mary Oliver too – interesing that she’s stripping back her poems a little bit more. I like to read my poems backwards and see if they still make sense. (Sometimes they do, surprisingly).

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