One of the chief things I take away from Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, is the possibility of writing on a subject while not speaking of it directly by using (seemingly) unrelated events, places and tone to speak of the subject. Writing off subject is one way of feeding the subject, while not belaboring it. To my mind this “technique,” or “process,” helps to emphasis the subject, when it does arise. I tend to overwrite in my work, hitting the reader over the head with what I am trying to say. Or else, I tend to write too much off the subject and never really get around to the subject. I am in search of the happy medium.
Well, well, well: Mary Oliver, that incredible poet, writes off the subject. Her prose poetry in White Pine, is all written off subject. I did not understand this at first, second, third or fourth glance mind you, which says a lot about Mary Oliver’s skill. After reading, and rereading the prose poetry in White Pine, a particular structure began to emerge. Once I discovered the structure, I was able to find the subject and see where she was writing in aid of the subject, but not directly about the subject.
Oliver, to my mind, is a master of the unsayable said, taking moments of personal revelation, quiet moments, and using them to speak of greater concerns. While talking about nature, she can make a reader become totally engrossed in the beauty of the thing, all the while forgetting the ultimate subject of the poem. The subject of Oliver’s prose poems don’t jump up and bite you, it is more organic. There is a story there in each piece, an explanation, but it is only there to reinforce the subject, which is not blatant.
When we read “Snails,” the subject of the piece is not the snails, whose ways are described all throughout the poem, but rather the individual who realizes: “Who are we? What are our chances.” In this piece, we witness a person who is fascinated by these creatures, the sounds they make, the “sticky thumb,” of the bodies. Oliver describes them as “flowing and eating,” “nibbling, sucking,” all human attributes of existence. The snails become a way of intensifying the subject of the poem which is, “Where have we made the terrible mistake we must turn from, or perish?” To which again Oliver goes off subject says, “(snails) shuffling up into marshes, by the millions, all doing something incredible. Not pretty, but incredible.” It is as if this incredible feat is similar to what the human race accomplishes on a day-to-day basis. We are just animals, shuffling, by the millions, going about our business.
In almost all of her poems, the subject comes at the end. It is represented, usually, in a single line, sometimes it is a reaction, and sometimes it is just a pronouncement. At the end of “Snails,” the poem narrator, speaking in second person singular, says, “You lift your own delicate hands, you touch your lips.” There is recognition there, but also it plays into the off subject, the eating and sucking of snails.
This end line subject comes in “May” where a person meeting a snake ends with, “When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.” The subject is not meeting a snake on a country road, the subject is being alive and what it means. In “Yes!, No!” the same structure, the last line is the subject: “To pay attention, that is our endless and proper work.” However, the majority of the poem was about paying attention or this proper work but was about walking through nature. “Grass” speaks to grass, of course, but about letting things lie; the past; the pain. “I disown them from the rest of my life, in which I mean to rest,” the last line reads. “Roses,” is not about roses, it is about death and the person who suffered the ultimate death, Jesus. However, Oliver doesn’t go right out and explain that she, or the narrator, is thinking about death or Jesus, until the end. Instead, the poem begins with a celebration of being broke, penniless, and living off the land, near the sea. It speak of how the person “rose from the dead,” of a sleep and enjoying the sun and the sights. Only after all that is dispensed with, Oliver writes, “Oh Jesus, poor boy, when was it you saw, clearly and irrevocably, just where you were headed?” By beginning the poem penniless and calling the poem “Roses,” Oliver wrote off the subject, but spoke directly to the subject.
The most striking prose poem in White Pine, is “August” which tells the story of a dying woman. Oliver is upfront with the subject. But she uses this to her advantage in describing how we deal with the subject of death; we go off subject. So the poem itself while on subject, depicts off subject events. The poems talks about children coming to visit, days at the beach, “they make dinners for twelve, for fifteen, for twenty.” Doesn’t the sick woman need rest? Life goes on. “In the morning two daughters come to the garden and slowly go through the precise and silent gestures of T’ai Chi.” It is almost like they are going through the motions, denying what is right in front of them. Beautifully, Oliver delivers the structure she had delivered throughout the book of prose poems. The end of “August” is an on the subject of a poem that has cleverly been on the subject, denial (which is off the subject of facing death). “Every day, we hear their laughter. I think of the painting by van Gogh (why, I asked myself had she brought in this painting, then comes the next lines), the man in his chair. Everything wrong, and nowhere to go. His hands over his eyes.” A near perfect hit! Under all the prettiness of August, under the denial that is so evident, was the subject: the dying woman.
What was so great about White Pine, was that I cracked her code. It took me a long time, but I did finally get it. That tells me she is incredible at what she does. I aspire to write this good, to take a subject and have seemingly unrelated subjects speak directly to it, without giving it away. It is the unsayable said, left to the final lines where the impact is the greatest.
For some great quotes, click on the link below. Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize winner and America’s best-selling poet.