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On "The Lilies Break Open …"


Mark Doty

… The Romantics turned to the craggy chaos of nature for a mirror to the heart’s tumultuous landscapes, and located wisdom in the greenwood. Taking their cue, American Transcendentalists declared nature’s book to be the more readable one, and the woods and fields became at once the most democratic and individual of teachers. Whatever we see is metaphor for ourselves, and our poetry is full of instances of landscape and animal life as instructional apparition.

There is no clearer contemporary example than the poems of Mary Oliver, in which each encounter with the natural world contributes to the spiritual education of the poet. Hawk, water lily, owl, and goldenrod impart their lessons, and the work of the poet is to receive the teachings. … Oliver’s nature is didactic, designed to instruct; our encounters with the other teach us how to live. No wonder the poet, as she noted in a recent interview, hides pencils in the trees along her favorite walks; the world through which she moves brims with incipient revelation.

Only a poet wily as Oliver can overcome the problems of this mode. Its plan – description leading to epiphany – is deeply familiar, and runs the risk of denying otter or sunflower their otherness, their beast natures, transforming them into emblems. The reader must accept the lessons the poet perceives, or at least participate in the process through which perception becomes emblematic. And, in an imperiled environment, the tutelary relationship the poems posit between animals and human beings can seen – well, quaint. But Oliver artfully rescues her poems from predictability by questioning their very project. Here she wrestles with her own strategem, while studying water lilies:

[Doty cites the lines beginning "And there you are" and ending "what they are impelled to do."]

For all her immersion in the evidence of nature, Oliver is an enormously self-conscious poet; she watches herself watch the world, and studies her own interpretive work while she strives to earn our complicity in it. "Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that / they have no tongues, could lecture / all day if they wanted about / spiritual patience?" [from "Landscape"] The poet’s role is to provide the tongue in question. Oliver’s role as spokesperson for the speechless world might weary were it not for a bracing undercurrent, a rather dour strain of doubt about the value of human consciousness. "And what," she asks, looking at autumn wildflowers, "has consciousness come to anyway, so far, / that is better than these light-filled bodies?" We expect, from the Transcendentalist, affirmative news, and Oliver brings it, but not without a certain desire to be no one, a longing to merge, unconscious, with the earth and stones and pond-mud she loves.

From Mark Doty, "Horsehair Sofa of the Antarctic: Diane Ackerman’s Natural Histories," Parnassus 20: 1 & 2 (1995), 266-267.


Ryan Cull

Oliver's "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" is a fascinating point-of-entry into contemporary environmentally-focused poetry, since it proudly and knowingly wears as battle scars the whole history of nature writing from the past two centuries.

Oliver knows the danger of romanticism, with its temptation to enter nature and poetically domesticate it in order to leave with a moral lesson. But she also knows the danger of post-modern irony, with its temptation to withdraw entirely from the reality of a physical environment into the shadows of solipsism. Navigating between such extremes, her high achievement is to approach nature through poetic discourse, but in a way that almost allows nature to talk back. In this manner, her poem openly and nostalgically engages the Romantic tradition, then shifts to a more self-aware, post-modern critique, before finally recontextualizing both stances in the face of biological realities.

Oliverís poem begins, however, well within the bounds of the lyrical subject before gradually challenging it. With its shaped stanzas, precise attention to biological detail, and adventurousness of metaphor, "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" is reminiscent of Marianne Moore, a distinguished nature poet herself. Like Moore, Oliver has the uncanny ability to heighten our awareness of a sense of difference towards things that might be considered otherwise rather mundane. Lilies on a pond, though always pleasing to the eye, are hardly surprising or exotic. But with a kind of time-lapse poetics, we witness within the course of fifteen lines the entirety of liliesí development, from being submerged in the primal "broth of life" until "they break open over the dark water." This process is described almost entirely by a remarkable sequence of metaphors. The lilies emerge from the "mud-hive[s]" of photosynthetic "gas sponge[s]" as "dream bowl[s]" with green leaves. Oliver suitably suggests the image of a magician as she briefly describes the flower protruding from its bulb as an almost-human "fist" holding a "wand." Then, just as quickly, she drops this anthropomorphism by describing the petals as bird-like "beaks of lace."

Though one does sense in all of this the Romantic lyrical subjectís taxonomic urge, a need to see all, to describe and to define into comprehension, one can also begin to sense in Oliverís kaleidoscopic metaphoricity the limits of this urge. And when the speaker finally appears, it is almost as if in an afterthought: "and there you are/ on the shore." Even as she openly admits to the temptation "to attach [the lilies] to an idea/ some news of your own life," she also quickly recognizes that the lilies are "slippery and wild" - a fine line that is doubly true, since it describes both a natural and an epistemic fact.

Oliver, however, goes beyond this questioning of the efficacy of the lyric subject, almost as if she senses that this move is becoming itself a bit of a well-worn post-modern convention. Instead, in her enigmatic final stanzas, she finds that these lilies are

devoid of meaning, they are
                simply doing,
                            from the deepest

spurs of their being
                what they are impelled to do
                            every summer.
                                        And so, dear sorrow, are you.

Here she boldly tries, at first, to identify that which separates humanity from the rest of nature. The lilies that she sees are "simply doing/ from the deepest/ spurs of their being." Humans, on the other hand, want to add a middle term between this "being" and "doing": we look for "meaning." But the lilies themselves (and indeed all of nature) are "devoid" of this "meaning" of human manufacture. That which we prize most in nature, that which we expect it to provide for us, thus, is the very thing that is not present in nature to begin with.

The final line, "And so, dear sorrow, are you," with its sudden analogy between the lilies and the poetic self, adds an additional turn of the screw. On the one hand, it seems to suggest with its sentimentality that, as the Romantics hoped, we are indeed fundamentally joined to nature. But Oliverís surprising reinscription of Romantic rhetoric cannot fully belie the semantic content of her poemís argument. For having just questioned the very reality of poetic "meaning," she here is not envisioning a transcendental epiphany bridging the gap between the human subject and nature. Nor is the "meaning" that we madly search for anything so grand as an individualís post-modern solipsisitic delusions. Instead, Oliverís melancholy conclusion seems paradoxically to be a sentimentally unsentimental admission that humanity and nature are united by a kind of genetic determinism. In reality, we, like the lilies, are also merely following the impulses of "being" and "doing." And this genetic script that we are "impelled" to follow is only slightly more complex than those of the lilies, capable of producing poems rather than flowers.

While Mark Doty correctly notes that Oliverís poem reveals "a certain desire to be no one, a longing to merge, unconscious, with the earth and stones and pond-mud she loves," it is not entirely clear that he fully recognizes what Oliver knowingly gives up as she seeks to achieve this. Nor is it clear, as Vicki Graham suggests, that for Oliver "to merge with the non-human is [only] to acknowledge the self's mutability and multiplicity, not to lose subjectivity" (353). Quite to the contrary, the conclusion of "Lilies" seems to contend that, in order to gain the long sought-after connection with nature, to cross the boundary between poetic subject and environmental object, Oliver finds that she must cede the reality of her own independent subjecthood to a larger biological, genetic reality. This is a bold proposition and also perhaps a dangerous one, for it is unclear where it leaves a poet like Oliver, who seems also to have certain residual, post-Romantic investments. Perhaps fine, albeit conflicted, poems like this one make it clear that we are at a turning point in our literary understanding of nature. Maybe a lesson can even be generalized: the poetic subject, as it has yet been realized by most writers, cannot happily coexist with nature. Which, in turn, might suggest a dramatic course of action: is it time to change the subject or drop it altogether?

Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull


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