[Adversaries in Love is SPR‘s version of a blind throwdown: two of us enter the squared circle with backs turned, spouting bile or blood for the same poem. Because compositions are done independently, we can’t guarantee point-by-point refutation; instead, we invite you to indulge in the signal critical eye of each writer and his or her style. Then, hurl a tomato from the rafters, if ye dare. —Ed.]
An imprimatur by S.R. Adams:
Whenever I read “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, I am reminded of my freedom. Not simply my defined freedoms (i.e., as an American), or even my abstract freedoms (I could walk outside naked), but the radical and immediate freedom that can only be grasped when I am able to see myself as more-than-human, when I see in myself the raw animal and her elemental cohorts (sky, sea) existing freshly and in communion with the vaster organic kingdom.
For all its simplicity of language, “Wild Geese” manages a great leap that takes the reader outside of the Judeo-Christian code of human belonging and redemption (read: one can be admitted to heaven under only such-and-such conditions, the first being that you are human), and into the vaster ecosphere of presence and potential within a world that is less human than animal, a world infinitely responsive to the imagination.
‘You do not have to be good,’ Oliver says first. ‘You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.’
In these opening lines, the poet boldly defies the binds of conventional morality by saying, simply, that one need not participate. The repenting figure in the desert that must lie prostrate and condemn the needs of the body to be forgiven by God and therefore be granted admission to heaven—given the ultimate badge of morality—is a sadly unimaginative and enslaved figure. The ‘good’ that Oliver turns from is a lifeless, limited archetype that cannot evolve or respond to an organic environment that is constantly transforming itself. What Nature makes room for—indeed validates—that conventional morality does not is how the radical independence and imagination of beings (organic, elemental, or otherwise) complicates the pathways of revelation. Not only that: the end-point takes a different form in the hands of Nature; the final reward of redemption in the natural order is not final at all, but a cycling home that marks not the end of struggle, but simply a moment of release and a gesture in the arc of deepening in the unending mysterium of being.
To borrow from the vocabularies of the Dungeons & Dragons cosmos, a more ‘Neutral Good’ alignment takes precedence as soon as the animal is given primacy as a substitute for the strained, ascetic good of a strictly human imagining—’You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.’
‘Soft’ implies the tissues themselves, the bodily reality that the ascetic so vehemently denies, and love is not given over to definition but relayed back to the possession of the animal, hers alone to define, to ‘love what it loves.’ It further implies that the animal does not need to try to be good; the poet has put this argument in place to imply that the animal in its organic freedom is already a substitution for ‘good.’
Then: ‘Tell me about despair, yours,’—here, Oliver turns to the human reader (for we cannot escape that ‘humanity’ completely, though we may be more), and makes a gesture to allow for the experience of despair to articulate itself through the singular terms of the individual. And I cannot but see this as a subversive movement away from the confessional tradition of absolving one’s experience through a handed-down regiment of prayer; for in response to this, the poet says to the man on the other side of the partition: ‘and I will tell you mine’—abolishing the place of the orthodox priest in order to create a more authentic dialogue. And while I believe this moment to be the weakest in the poem, aesthetically, I allow for it—and even can be moved by it—for the very weakness it illustrates: the entrapment of looking too narrowly into our own species, a weakness that Oliver recognizes, for immediately after she turns away from it, to say: ‘Meanwhile, the world goes on.’ And then the following six lines turn entirely to the dramas of the natural world, the non-human sphere in which ‘the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes,’ and ‘the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, / are heading home again.’
And, finally, speaking back to the initial despair which has initiated a search for redemption or release, particularly to those who lack a sense of belonging, the poet gives us this: ‘The world offers itself to your imagination,’ and recalls again the wild geese from before: ‘[the world] calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.’
By the end of the poem the wild geese come to replace the symbol of the stale ascetic—who has no reality—with a yet-living symbol that has arisen from the animal itself, the physical thing, transmuted via the imagination, to speak in our human language of the enduring pilgrimage from suffering to release. The journey is not abstracted into moral pathways, but consists of the pure, unmediated (and dangerous) passage through the natural elements, the ‘clean blue air’; and the return home, unlike the ascent to heaven, is not removed from the sensual, living, and imaginative sphere that the planet provides. No, say the geese and the poet, the reader need not contort herself into the abstracted shapes of a limited moral understanding; she need only to accept the neutral power of her inner animal and be receptive to the wisdom of that being, and to reject the human codes which do not offer themselves to the full imagination.
Unlike those religious leaders who make no qualms about translating the word of God for the fallen animal, the poet refuses to dictate, does not provide the code or the formula that is analogous to walking on one’s knees in repentance, but aims to refigure the quest from an ecological perspective.
So the journey reveals itself: from out of the the arid stretch of human-centric morality, Oliver takes her reader more deeply into the Otherness within and without, to deliver her to a place—or perhaps a season—of ripe natural connection, a point from which the imagination alone may transport her to the next phase of revelation, and the next.
Nextly, J. Spece injuncts:
Oliver’s poem is of the most limited anthropomorphic scope, and depends upon a finely tuned reader alive enough, in her reading, to turn its leaden contents to Materials Other. While I don’t doubt that Adams has completed a transfiguration far surpassing the contents of “Wild Geese,” I want to address the issues of the poem as it is written—as Oliver’s speaker writes it.
Foremost, it is a mistake to imagine “Wild Geese” to be about one’s place in the natural order; it tries, more than anything else, to enact a placable social fantasy through the most readable human understanding of socialization: namely, belonging. Its environs are all ‘natural,’ one might protest: ‘sun,’ ‘rain,’ ‘prairies,’ ‘deep trees’ (the most specious and gestural of the bunch—I’ll return in a moment), ‘rivers,’ ‘clean blue air.’ I assert, however, that every key connective turn recalls a bromide that is identifiably ‘ours’: ‘Meanwhile, the world goes on’ (read: Got to press on, baby, don’t be so interior); ‘Meanwhile the wild geese [. . .] / are heading home again’ (read: Home, home, home the base of family, friends, where one can return and simply “be herself”—even the geese want that, eh?); ‘announcing your place / in the family of things’ (q.v.; also, Remember, no matter how weird you are, sister, how ‘lonely,’ you belong).
The only real reference to nature that is more-than-man in “Wild Geese” is through aura—as if the poem could steal width and breadth by the mere mention of such expanses. ‘Deep trees,’ once again, is the most glaring example of this ploy: the adjective lends a sense that the speaker understands or fathoms what might make a tree ‘deep,’ but all he really understands is the faceted utility of such a term in context. Show me, Mary Oliver—convince me your speaker has wisdom to share about the depth of trees, trees of the deep, trees in the deeps—do not simply name them.
Ah, the gorgeous comfort of solidarity, of making this flaccid, average body alive with the rivers!—’You do not have to be good’; ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.’ Self-indulgent tripe, really, in the guise of guru-esque equanimity. The speaker wrongfully equates human self-allowance with the turns nature ‘allows’ herself (as if the river’s dip northwest or the snake’s molting is a matter of ‘allowance’), and gains its measure of repose in—as usual—the specular.
The fact is: you do have to be good—conceiving of the good compels one to investigate it. The fact is: you may never ‘belong’ anywhere—just fuck it, frankly. The fact is: you have not begun to understand how rain ‘moves across landscapes,’ or what concept of homestead the geese possess in their flying, nor their experience of what our speaker fancies ‘harsh and exciting’ (don’t worry, neither has Oliver)—nor will you approach understanding through contentment with your being as it sits. Most importantly: whether or not the world ‘offers itself to your imagination’—whether one must summon a sweat to search the world out—there’s no doubt that it is through the work of ‘despair’ and loneliness that the contents of self are spilt; to imagine that such despairing and such loneliness have nothing to yield but joints and threads that bind us is flatly wrong.
I’ll meet you next on knees in the desert; we’ll know more about each other in that meeting than the ‘repentance’ Oliver cannot, after all, begin to imagine.