Mary Oliver (b. 1935) is an American author whose poetry is known for its clear observations on the natural world. A reviewer for the ‘Harvard Review’ wrote:
Mary Oliver’s poetry is an excellent antidote for the excesses of civilization, for too much flurry and inattention, and the baroque conventions of our social and professional lives. She is a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making (poets.org, s.d).
Many of Oliver’s poems explore ‘wild’ nature but in ‘Morning’ (Oliver, 1992) her attention is on the domestic, the everyday, the routine. She does not use metaphors at all in this poem, for example the first line is purely descriptive and defamiliarising. Reading the poem there is a sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the paradox of the everyday. Oliver describes this ‘simple’ awareness — ‘Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.’ – and recognises the essential indeterminacy of our lives and what happens in them as she watches the cat leap ‘lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn’.
This is a quiet poem: although never stated, the early morning quite of the ‘cold kitchen’ pervade the lines. There is also a waiting, a pause for thinking, for some answer: ‘I watch her a little while, thinking:/what more could I do with wild words?/ I stand in the cold kitchen … / I stand in the cold kitchen ….
The poet’s state of awareness of the animate (the cat) and inanimate world around her is profound and she feels challenged as to how to articulate it – ‘what more could I do with wild words?’ This awareness – ‘everything wonderful around me’ — is not cosy or warm, not a shutting of the eyes to achieve a heightened sense of self, but it is a humbling of self, in awe – ‘bowing down to her’ – and wonder at ‘everything wonderful around me’. All while standing in the ‘cold kitchen’, real and alive.
The mental images this poem evokes in me
The theme of this poem is perhaps ‘awareness of the everyday’ or just ‘awareness’ (‘awareness’ is opposite to ‘reverie’ where the mind is elsewhere).
- Reading the first two lines brings mental images of whatever I have recently seen or handled e.g. a cup and saucer used while sitting reading the poem — did I ‘see’ them, in their ‘completeness’?
- The quiet times of day, at early morning or late evening – the different sunlight at these times
- Glinting sunshine, on a cold crisp day
- Birds foraging on the grass in the back garden
- Remembered times and opportunities for observing ‘everything wonderful around me’ e.g. while waiting on the platform for the next tram while travelling at off-peak time.
- A pet cat, alert in the sunshine
- The view from the kitchen window while waiting for the toaster, or kettle or boiled egg to be ready
- A breadknife lying beside a loaf of bread, freshly cut slices, scattered crumbs
How to express visually
The poet chooses morning time, her cat, and everyday objects in her kitchen related to her routine to express acute awareness of the world. Morning is a time before ‘the day’ begins, before there is a going ‘out into the world’. It’s possible to follow this morning theme, a period of the day conducive to ‘awareness’, in a visual interpretation of the poem. However, because the main subject of the poem is not ‘morning’, but ‘awareness’, it is not essential. Another period of time that lends itself to awareness is time spent waiting — for example queueing, or awaiting the arrival of public transport.
My proposal is to convey visually an interval of time that is spend waiting, one that possesses the same ‘tension’ as ‘morning’, that time before the day begins. The ‘subject’ that I will try to express is ‘waiting’ — that time when there can be an awareness of a lull in ‘the action’, a gap, that quality of time of a calm before the ‘storm’ of what is our day continues.
To this end I will take preliminary photographs at a tram ‘station’ at an off peak travel time i.e. a situation conducive to a state of awareness — the lull in ‘the action’, the expectancy, the alertness, the ‘everything wonderful around me’, defamiliarised mood/feel.
It is tempting to photograph in sharp focus with good depth of field (small aperture), and in black and white so as to more easily abstract detail(s) and so convey ‘awareness’. However, the awareness in question is a relaxed awareness, not a keyed up anxious alertness which any such visual starkness would convey. Equally it is important also not to let the imagery slip into that of reverie or dream-like – will photograph in colour.
Oliver, Mary (1992) Morning At: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/124.html (Accessed on 29.10.14)
Poets.org (s.d) Mary Oliver At: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/mary-oliver (Accessed on 28.10.14)