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Valé Mary Oliver

The late American poet Mary Oliver blocked out life’s white noise and tuned in to our natural world.

The American poet Mary Oliver died nearly a year and a half ago and I’ve just found out. Somehow that adds to the loss.

For anyone who thinks (some) poetry is too hard (and I’ll gingerly raise my hand), read Mary Oliver. There are no tricks and turns for the sake of it.

One of her great gifts, was to take a moment in time and hush the rest of the world so we could kneel down with her and take a really close look. Her words magnify the natural world and return it golden and holy.

She had such reverence for life and her passionate questions have become mantras to many. 

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

These words from her poem Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches? were written on a post-it and stuck above our kitchen sink until it would stick no longer. Then I moved it to my desk, this pink post-it,  water-stained and sun-faded with a message too vital for the recycling bin.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

In The Summer Day she calls us to action again. How can we fumble through our days on repeat when life is in session?

Whenever the world is turned up too high or there’s too much interference, reading Mary Oliver mutes all the chatter. It’s quiet, suspended there in her poetry, watching birds arc in the sky, noticing mushrooms on the forest floor or the trees as theylean in and sigh together.

Her North American environment is completely alien to me. We have bushland and heat and seasons that aren’t so neatly marshalled. But what she showed us was universal. Moments. Wonder. Reverence for silence and nature. I think we can all understand that.

Thank you, Mary, for trusting your words to us.

Shakespeare, me and an unchanged signature

Anyone else still using the loopy mess they invented when they were 10?

Apparently when Shakespeare was bored he would practise signatures over and over to decide which one he liked the best. When I was ten I, like Shakespeare, was bored and decided it was time to invent my signature.

A signature was such an adult gesture. I wanted to emulate the sophisticated copperplate loops I’d seen. However, my cohort at school didn’t learn copperplate handwriting. Our cursive was called ‘foundation’ handwriting and it was really just print tenuously held together by little curls from one letter to the next. There was nothing romantic or slanted. Foundation handwriting was all function and no flourish.

There are a few decisions to be made when you create a signature. Do you use your full name, initials or an initial and a surname? I decided on a very loopy N Cullen. I was proud that the N was surrounded by the C of my surname. It seemed like a clever touch. And, yes, it’s as bubbly and tween as it sounds. It’s lucky I didn’t use Nina, because there’d probably still be a heart over the i. This was supposed to be my understudy signature while I perfected some neat and impressive cursive squiggle worthy of the important documents it would one day grace.

Then I started signing things; a kids’ bank account, a passport, birthday cards. 10 years later when I wanted to dissociate myself from this loopy embarrassment, I’d signed too many things. I had a driver’s licence and a bank card. Every official document that’d been pushed under my pen had the same signature.

I never sat down again to nut out my signature and create something with a bit more dignity. Luckily, signatures don’t matter now as much as they used to. Cheques barely exist and I don’t even think you sign the back of your credit card anymore. Legal and medical documents still need you to make your personal mark but I’ve made peace with my squiggles now. It makes me look young.