The name of the deep breath

Feeling lethargic and slightly queasy today, perhaps from the ibuprofen I’ve been taking around the clock for the last weeks.  For years I took it routinely, but maybe being off it for a year, my gut got used to a gentler environment.  Hard to believe now that I was taking all that ibuprofen and drinking huge quantities at the same time.  I must’ve been born lucky.  Stupid, but lucky.

Spent a good part of the day reading Kathleen Norris’ book (yes, more Norris!) Acedia and Me.  Fascinating stuff, especially for one as unversed in religious history and tradition as I am. The definition of acedia has changed over the centuries, from sin to disease to an accepted world view. As she talked about its pervasiveness in modern life, I got more and more dismayed, began wondering whether there were ways out, sources of renewal, something that could take one out of cynicism, lethargy, self-indulgence, despair.

I took a break to make a cup of tea, and as I was waiting for the kettle to boil, thumbed through a book of poetry and came across this:


You can
die for it–
an idea,
or the world. People

have done so,
their small bodies be bound

to the stake,
an unforgettable
fury of light. But

this morning,
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought

of China,
and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun

for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter

–from Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1

Photo credit: sswl

Every morning, renewal is there, if only we can see it.

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4 Responses to The name of the deep breath

  1. Imogen says:

    I’m astonished i used to drink to feel ‘better’, then felt worse for it, so took painkillers to alleviate the pain of the original drug (booze) then had to deal with the adverse effects of said painkiller. Baffling what a vicious merry-go-round i created. What a terrible way to live a life.
    I don’t usually ‘get’ poetry, but the one you’ve shared here is just beautiful.
    Can you take something other than ibuprofen? It doesn’t agree with my gut either so i stick with paracetamol. Hope you feel better soon xo

    • sswl says:

      Yes, a really terrible way to live a life. I’m glad neither of us is doing it anymore. Turned out the queasiness was from an herbal supplement, not the ibuprofen, which I’m happy about since it’s an effective anti-inflammatory for me. But possible side effects are scary, and I’ll try to wean down as I can.

      I’ve loved Mary Oliver’s poetry for years. Much of it’s grounded in the natural world, and she takes such joy in it. It’s accessible without being simple-minded. But I’ve gotten a lot more relaxed over the years about whether I understand everything in a poem.

      When I was a student, struggling over James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was considered a very obscure and difficult book, one of my teachers told a story that made me realize you don’t have to understand everything to enjoy reading something like that: A man comes up to Joyce in a Dublin pub and says, “Mr. Joyce, I’ve read Ulysses twice, and I just don’t get it. Can you help me?” “Read it a third time,” says Joyce gruffly. A few months later, the same man approaches him again. “I read it a third time, Mr. Joyce, and I still don’t understand it.” Joyce takes off his hat and scratches his head in perplexity and says, “Well, man, didn’t you even think it was funny?”

      The point being, the guy was so tied up in knots about getting all the obscure references, he completely missed that it’s actually a very funny book. For me, poetry’s like that. I read it because I like the sound of the language, or an image jumps out at me. It’s like music–it speaks to the heart.

  2. I really love what I’ve seen of Oliver’s poetry. I think I discovered her work via Keillor’s book “Good Poetry” in which he included “Wild Geese.” She is often featured on The Writer’s Almanac, Imogen, if you see this reply and want to read some more of her stuff, click here:

    It was actually Oliver’s birthday on the 10th of this month. I enjoyed learning a little more about her when The Writer’s Almanac site shared this:
    “Today is the birthday of poet Mary Oliver (books by this author), born in Maple Heights, Ohio (1935). When she was a teenager, she dropped out of college and made a pilgrimage to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s estate in upstate New York, and although Millay had been dead for several years, her sister Norma still lived there. The two women hit it off, and Oliver ended up living on the estate for several years. It’s there that she met Molly Malone Cook, who had come to pay a visit to Millay. Oliver and Cook fell in love and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, together. Cook became Oliver’s literary agent, and also sometimes impersonated Oliver for phone interviews because she hated talking to the press. They were together for more than 40 years, and after Cook died in 2005, Oliver published Thirst (2006), a collection of poems about her grief.
    She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, for her collection American Primitive (1983), and she’s one of the best-selling American poets, but she’s a very private person who rarely gives interviews. Oliver’s most recent book is Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (2010).”

    Susan I love that story about Joyce! :)

    • sswl says:

      Thanks, Christy! I loved learning a little more about Oliver. I have a lot of her poetry and have been to one of her readings, but knew nothing about her personal life.

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