Announcing Your Place: Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

by Andrew Lazo

Image by Hajnalka Ardai, courtesy of stock.xchng

Many years ago, just when I needed it most, a friend sent Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” my way. And over the years it has aged well. I read it differently now, but as with most great poems (and great friends for that matter), it travels well. Here’s the poem, followed by a few comments stanza by stanza. I hope something here can help.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

       love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

So now by stanzas:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

This poem seems to turn after these first three lines. Many things occur to me as I read them: It relieves me that I do not have to be good; there is none good but God. And while repentance and even getting on one’s knees can both accomplish much good, I know many, many people who have what Michael Wilson calls “an attic already full of useless guilt.” Yes, repentance certainly can serve as a way of turning around and going home, but I don’t know anyone who needs a hundred years of it.

What the poem next offers instead of such masochistic martyrdom always surprises me:

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

       love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Oliver follows the jarring image of the first three lines with these succeeding three, which arrest in a different way. The “soft animal of your body” image always catches me, always reminds me that I am an amalgam of beast and spirit, and that the two tug in tension at each other each day. Because this is so, I find the two lines that follow the “soft body” image paradoxical, but redemptively so. Oliver suggests a certain wisdom in following one’s affections as reliable guides, suggests that in the place of excessive repentance we should let love have its head.

But Oliver immediately implies that, in following the lead of love, we will meet despair, yours and mine. Nevertheless, she doesn’t abandon us to it. In inviting the reader both to tell of such despair and to hear of it in turn, she offers valuable wisdom.

For I have found that in telling my despairs and griefs, I eventually manage to shape a sort of narrative whole of them. No matter how often I have spoken of some great pain, I always end up much more able to see it as a story with its theme and plot moves, conflict, climax, and some kind of resolution. Sometimes a poem (one such as this, or even one of my own) arrives just in time to help make some sense of it.

Speaking of troubles can shape them; hearing of the pains of another person might just help us to read a kind of commentary on our own love and its dangers. And when we “have more talk of these sad things,” a kind of catharsis can occur and maybe even offer some kind of balm. I believe to my depths in the power of language to lend a sort of sense and to heal, even if slowly.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

This passage contains another of the images that really delights me—the “clear pebbles of the rain.” I would never have thought of the rain this way, and now I almost cannot imagine the rain without thinking of its “clear pebbles.” And the traveling rain reminds me of nothing so much as a long drive across America, appearing either in any number of travelogue books, or in my own memory. The vastness of journey often provides catharsis too.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

This “meanwhile” seems different from the one that precede it, and the phrase “heading home again” will quote often reach out of the poem and grab me. Do these geese fly north, harbingers of impending spring? Do they seek the southern sun, shunning the shivering winter about to descend upon the ones left behind? And where exactly is home?

Again, the American-ness of the poem strikes me, the wanderlust, the traveling, the road-weariness, but also the bright fire and warm meal and kindly faces that may await those who can come home again.

But then, as if to signal her understanding that “home again” doesn’t offer everyone such storybook comforts, Oliver continues:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

After starkly contrasting the images of “home again” and “how lonely,” the poem urges into our understanding a final consolation. In its startling invitation, the poem arrests, and reminds the reader that a certain quality of loneliness accompanies us all. But this loneliness comes couched between “heading home again” and “your place / in the family of things” and cries out like the geese do, at the beginning and ending of a season of cold and darkness.

That cry, always heard far off and high above, serves the poem well as its central metaphor—but it serves its readers well, too. It may call to mind the faraway cry of a night train, racing through the night to bring people the very things they need the most. These geese, the poem seems to say, are as wild as the human heart. They fly alone even while forming a part of a group, an arrow, a pointer towards a warmer places and seasons. They honk out their tales of hope and despair, even as they press on together. They have a home, they form a family, and they’re on their way somewhere.

And, as Mary Oliver so poignantly implies, so are we.

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2 thoughts on “Announcing Your Place: Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

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