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Mark Doty's
Mary Oliver's
The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond


from the collection: Source
By Mark Doty
Imprint: Perennial
HarperCollins, 2001

Don't Give Me Apples:
A Response to Mark Doty's Source

                                                            By Wanda Schubmehl

            Mark Doty's poem "Source" is a particular favorite of mine, partly because it does so well some of the things I attempt to do in my own poetry, and which I so enjoy in others' poetry: the poem plays with time, beginning by firmly rooting itself in the mundane everyday, and moving effortlessly out into the infinite, and back again; the language is both ordinary and lyrical; the poem is grounded and mystical; Doty uses a perfect stanza form in which to house the shining core of the poem – tercets alternate with couplets, until the poem turns and opens up as wide as human thought can go – this turn is marked by consecutive tercets, and thereafter continues alternating couplets with tercets.

            In this poem, Doty offers us his vision of every experience, scene, relationship as parts of a whole, that glorious concept of connection. He posits the existence of a "cool womb // of nothing, cave at the heart / of the world, deep and resilient and firmly set / at the core of things? Not emptiness, // not negation, but a generous, cold nothing: / the breathing space out of which new shoots // are propelled to the grazing mouths, / out of which horses themselves are tendered / into the new light." He sees the horses (to which he has been drawn as he passes them on a day of errands) standing on a "clear channel" which runs from and, eventually, back to, the Source, and he reminds us that we are all making the same journey.

            I enjoy the tease in the first part of the poem, where he describes the horses coming to the fence "—to see what I'd brought them." I expected to hear that he'd bought an apple or two while he was in town, and I believe that Doty knew that association would come to many readers, because he follows that line not with "I gave them an apple," but with "Experience is an intact fruit, / core and flesh and rind of it; once cut open, / entered, it can't be the same, can it?" At this point, I get an almost visceral thrill – it's as if the poet is right there in my mind, where I'm expecting apples, and gives me metaphysical fruit instead!

            Mark Doty read this poem at our first RochesterInk poetry festival – his phrasing and pacing, the resonance of his voice, and the evident wonder he finds in these moments of epiphany (along with the poem's beauty!), made this poem one of those I will never be able to forget. After his reading, I said to someone, "This is why I love poetry," and she knew exactly what I meant – at its best, poetry can take you beyond yourself, into the mystery of life, into the light of what we all need in order to transcend ourselves.

Blue Iris: Poems and Essays

"The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond,"
from the collection: Blue Iris: Poems and Essays,
By Mary Oliver
Beacon Press, 2004.

Black Boat Floating:
A Response to Mary Oliver's
            The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond

                                                            By Wanda Schubmehl

            Since I just saw and heard Mary Oliver at a reading, I will tell you about a poem of hers I especially like, "The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond." Anyone who knows Oliver knows that her work is grounded in the natural world, and that she speaks often of her purpose on earth being "to love the world," or "to pay attention." What I have found inspirational in Oliver's poetry is how she entwines an event or observation of nature with layers of meaning; while Oliver's work might be seen as metaphorical, which to me implies that there is a deeper significance which is the real or "more important" one, I suggest that Oliver would reject this assessment as inexact: in her work, the concrete observation stands equal to the spiritual or emotional meanings, so that all coexist and flow.

            In this poem, Oliver tells us that a black oak (which I believe is the particular black oak she has mentioned in another poem as being one to which she felt a special closeness) was struck by lightning, and now is a "black boat / floating / in the leaves of summer, / like the coffin of Osiris / descending / upon the cloudy Nile."

            I stop right there and marvel at how Oliver has just taken me from Blackwater Pond to mythology and the Nile! In eighteen words!

            But that isn't what I started out to write about. What I intended to comment on is her rejection of the comfort often offered in times of loss – that the felled tree will nourish the earth and other forms of life, that death is for a short time but resurrection follows. Oliver insists on the right to grieve "that tree — / tree of the moment —tree of my own sad, mortal heart— ", insisting on the exquisite and irreplaceable singularity of everything. This poem makes me ask the question: How would the world change if we lived our lives as if each person and thing in nature were precious? Would we be better caretakers of our natural world? Would we no longer have to grieve for a teenager gunned down on a city sidewalk by an acquaintance angry over some slight? Could we give up war?

            At the reading I went to in April, someone asked how Oliver keeps herself from despair. She replied that she believes that through paying devoted attention to something, one comes to love the object of one's attention. In this poem, through her insistence that one tree matters, Oliver makes me ask: What do I take for granted? What do I devalue by distancing myself? How will I choose to live my moment-to-moment life?

            And this is why I hold that poetry is powerful: reading about an oak tree felled and blackened by a bolt of fire, I am stirred to examine my own values and how I live them, despite never intending to confront myself when I first picked up the poem.

Wanda Schubmehl is The Centrifugal Eye's Featured Interview Poet for Spring 2007.
Read more about Wanda on her Poems page.

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