Since it’s still National Poetry Month…
When the Roses Speak, I Pay Attention
by Mary Oliver 

As long as we are able to
be extravagant we will be
hugely and damply
extravagant. Then we will drop
foil by foil to the ground. This
is our unalterable task, joyfully."

And they went on, "Listen,
the heart-shackles are not as you think,
death, illness, pain,
unrequited hope, not loneliness, but

lassitude, rue, vainglory, fear, anxiety,

Their fragrance all the while rising
from their blind bodies, making me
spin with joy.

Sometimes we should read poetry to challenge ourselves with rich vocabuary . . . and with telling the truth. How fascinating this poem became when I read it a second time, actually picturing the roses having a hearttoheart with the garden wanderer. How thought-provoking . . . when I looked up the definitions and synonyms for words whose meanings I assumed I knew . . . “lassitude, rue, vainglory . . . ” What are these things that the poet feels are the real “heart-shacklers”?

This focus on words reminded me of the morning last spring when I read the selection for the day from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. May 22: “. . . God is not concerned about our plans . . . He allows these things for His purpose. The things we are going through are either making us sweeter, better, nobler men and women; or they are making us more captious and fault-finding, more insistent upon our own way.” Captious? Not me. Then I scrolled down the list of definitions and synonyms: “apt to notice and make much of trivial faults or defects; faultfinding; difficult to please” and “petty; nagging; unreasonably critical; having a querulous or exacting temperament; picking at flaws; calculated to confuse, entrap, or entangle in argument.” Lord, help me.

Lassitude—a state of physical or mental weariness or debility; fatigue; a condition characterized by lack of interest, energy, or spirit; languor; listlessness

Rue—bitterly regret something one has done or allowed to happen; deep sorrow; “with rue my heart is laden” –A.E. Houseman

Vainglory—inordinate pride in oneself or one’s achievement; excessive boastful vanity; arrogance; conceitedness; characterized by condescending attitude  

I think about the speakers. Why roses? Mary Oliver was seventy-one when she published this poem in Thirst. I consider how these things—lassitude, rue, vainglory (as well as fear, anxiety, selfishness) shackle the heart. I notice the poet’s choice of shackle . . . a word we don’t use much any more. I think reading poetry is more about paying attention to where we are drawn to ponder . . . rather than focusing on “what it means.”

An old English teacher, I have always had access to a lot of poetry. I rarely buy a volume, unless I see it in a thrift store and it is one of my favorites. But I ordered Mary Oliver’s Devotions this winter. On the cover of this edition: “Arranged by Oliver herself shortly before her death in 2019, Devotions features Oliver’s work from her very first book of poetry, No Voyage and Other Poems, published in 1963 at the age of 28, through her last, Felicity, published in 2015.” I am jumping around in it, sampling poems from each work, and marking alongside selections that speak to me—her age. This is proving fascinating.

Poems are organized under each publication starting with the most recent to the earliest, so approximating her age is fairly easy. Why is this fascinating? Because she has, with her poetry, verified to me what I am coming to know: aging is more an exterior work than interior. Obvious on the outside, we can’t deny it as we slow, ache, wrinkle, feel the subtle losses of strength or efficiency. But her words reveal that the interior can remain intact. Unless the poem hints at exterior diminishments . . . “old legs,” “slowness” . . . you cannot tell which poems were written when she was young, middle-aged, or in her older years. I feel the same thing when reading Madeleine L’Engle’s nonfiction. I find that encouraging.

I’m thinking that a close study of just the poems in this collection might reveal a progression of skill, and subtle shifts in focus and nuance, that would place each one chronologically without the help of the text organization . . . but I’m not so sure. I think I’ll just be encouraged by that today . . . and ponder what it might mean to be “hugely and damply extravagant” like those roses.

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