One of the first contemporary poems I loved was Sleeping in the Forest, by Mary Oliver.
To adequately love a poem, you must prepare its dwelling place; memorize it. Revisit it frequently.
- When I found the poem (late 1980’s):
Reading that poem (which is under copyright and not legally available online) felt like meditation to me.
It felt like my life.
I liked that the poem veered toward hope. My thoughts didn’t merely rise, they “floated, light as moths / among the branches of the perfect trees” and I didn’t merely grapple with darkness, it was “a luminous doom.”
I could have hummed the word luminous all night, so that “by morning / I had vanished at least a dozen times.”
This poem embraced darkness and yet it chased away my fears of the unknown. I began to see adventure in being moth-like, floating near “the white fire of the stars.” I welcomed the poem’s strange sleep in the forest that offered no rest but instead consisted of work–of rising, falling and grappling “all night.”
I didn’t think about the poem, despite its emphasis on thought. I loved the poem the way a small child loves the one who comforts her, simply, without question, with physical emotion.
I notice line breaks and meter, wondering why the poet cuts the last line down to three feet and changes the meter from iambic to trochaic.
And I wonder whether that empty space at the end of the last line implies the work of grappling, vanishing, and awakening always remains unfinished? Is it like the incomplete measure at the end of a song, harkening back to the beginning for its resolution?
The poem begins with the words, “I thought.”
It must allude to Descarte.
I notice that the poem is almost a sonnet–fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Line fourteen reads:
“I had vanished at least a dozen times”
It might have ended there. Instead, Oliver completes a transformation-narrative with this sparkling addendum–
“into something better.”
These days I am attuned to the sound, the internal music of the poem in every one of its finely-crafted lines. Listen:
“All night I heard the small kingdoms / breathing around me, the insects, / and the birds who do their work in the darkness.”
The consonants rustle and hum, the vowels breathe.
Now when I read poems, I primarily notice the skill required to craft them.
While this used to be a poem that reminded me of my life, everything has changed. Sleeping in the forest and grappling with doom seems a ridiculously uncomfortable way to spend the night. Give me a cushy B&B near the sea.
But I still read poetry mostly in the evening, often right before bed. And while I used to read poetry largely for the emotional content of a poem, now I read poetry for its mysterious music, the experience of what poet Alice B. Fogel calls Strange Terrain.
What do you read after darkness descends, and why?