Mary Oliver, “At the River Clarion”

February 15, 2013

At the River Clarion

Mary Oliver

I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered the moss beneath the water.

I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through all the traffic, the ambition.

2.

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.
Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.

Imagine how the lily (who may also be a part of God) would sing to you if it could sing,
if you would pause to hear it.
And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn’t sing?

If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.

He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell.
He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing their weapons.
He’s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician, the poet.
And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?

Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
I don’t know how you get to suspect such an idea.
I only know that the river kept singing.
It wasn’t a persuasion, it was all the river’s own constant joy
which was better by far than a lecture, which was comfortable, exciting, unforgettable.

3.

Of course for each of us, there is the daily life.
Let us live it, gesture by gesture.
When we cut the ripe melon, should we not give it thanks?
And should we not thank the knife also?
We do not live in a simple world.

4.

There was someone I loved who grew old and ill
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do

except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.

5.

My dog Luke lies in a grave in the forest, she is given back.
But the river Clarion still flows from wherever it comes from
to where it has been told to go.
I pray for the desperate earth.
I pray for the desperate world.
I do the little each person can do, it isn’t much.
Sometimes the river murmurs, sometimes it raves.

6.

Along its shores were, may I say, very intense cardinal flowers.
And trees, and birds that have wings to uphold them, for heaven’s sakes–
the lucky ones: they have such deep natures,
they are so happily obedient.
While I sit here in a house filled with books,
ideas, doubts, hesitations.

7.

And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice
singing.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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