The tradition of the nature poem in American Literature is as old as American poetry itself. In a land of vast distances and grand landscapes, nature imprints itself “naturally” into the American psyche and self-understanding. It would not be an exaggeration to declare that there are really only two subjects for a truly “American” poet: nature and the common person.
Mary Oliver is one of our best contemporary “nature” poets. Her mastery of that tradition is what has helped make her one of the best-selling… if not the best-selling… poets in America. Her eye and images are remarkable… her language a delight.
“Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith” is a good example of what she does best, maybe better than any contemporary poet other than Wendell Berry: She reminds us of how crucial nature is to the salvation of our very humanity and souls.
On a warm August morning, Mary Oliver seems like just the thing.
Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith
I listen and look
under the sun’s brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can’t hear
anything, I can’t see anything —
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,
nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker —
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.
And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing —
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,
the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet —
all of it
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.
And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt
swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.