01 July 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/27


It grew in the black mud.

It grew under the tiger's orange paws.
Its stems thinner than candles, and as straight.
Its leaves like the feathers of egrets, but green.
The grains cresting, wanting to burst.
Oh, blood of the tiger.

I don't want you just to sit down at the table.

I don't want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Mary Oliver

Summer is when even the most tender and delicate fruits are available in easy abundance. No matter how sweaty and sticky the hot days get, I can always console myself with the thought of the ripening tomatoes. It's also the time of the occasional "speed eating" contests, in which contestants struggle to cram down as much pie or as many hot dogs as they can in a limited amount of time. I find these contests sickening, and immoral in a world in which so many are hungry. Abundance should call forth abundant gratitude and respect.

In this poem Oliver urges us to a deeper sense of gratitude and respect through seeing the whole natural chain that results in the rice on our tables. It's not enough just to eat and be satisfied: we have to understand and connect. She starts with the black mud (I love her vividly present colors: the black mud, the orange paws, the green leaves, the white tablecloth). She suggests a whole natural world around the rice paddies, and its distance from our daily American experience: it comes from the land of tigers. The egrets appear only in simile but remain in our minds as real birds. The water essential to rice cultivation shines (the sun must be bright) in the fields and the grains almost burst before they are harvested. Oliver ends by returning to the mud, now elevated to an essential part of the blessing that comes when we connect with the natural world. The blessing comes not with the clean white tablecloth (with its suggestion of the overly antiseptic, particularly after the other bright colors earlier in the poem), but with the mud. And it only becomes "like a blessing" when we fill our hands with it. And in between the two mentions of mud is a subtle, primal rhyme (in the last line of the first stanza) linking the mud at beginning and end with the life in between: mud - blood - mud.

Oliver brings out the visionary aspect of her appreciation through a simple but very effective device: each line of the poem is separate and ends with a full stop right through the midway point of the second stanza, when she invites us "to walk out into the fields" and for the first time in this poem we expand unbroken into the next line: "where the water is shining, and the rice has risen." Shining, with its implications of lightness, glowing, and reflection, is just one of those words that inescapably conveys a transfigured state, and even if you lack the religious background that links risen with the Resurrection, your ear will respond to the verbal echo of rice / risen (the only example in this poem of this kind of word play, which can be found abundantly in the Oliver poem I posted earlier).

This is from Oliver's New and Selected Poems.


Unknown said...

I loved this right away when I read it, and found it so accessible that I missed all the great things about it that you pointed out (colors, mud-blood, and rice/risen). Thanks for making me slow down and like it even more.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you for slowing down. That's what poetry is for.