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 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.
Experiencing this poem for me is like experiencing nature itself, experiencing the essence of being human too perhaps. The contrasts jump out.. The contrast of the notion of repentance and punishment---for what? For being 'bad' in some way. For sin? It contrasts hardness and suffering, --the bony knees shuffling on the hard ground, the pain of despair, the emptiness of a desert of loneliness, --with the softness and beauty and fullness that nature offers to us if we know how to open ourselves to it.
The repetition of the word "meanwhile" is soothing. It suggests the constancy of nature, the neverending cycles, the rhythms that ebb and flow and never cease. Meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile, the sun and the rain, life givers, provide their blessings indiscriminately and continuously.
She uses simple words, and simple images, simple figurative language: clear pebbles of rain, deep trees. One doesn't have to work to get the meaning of the poem, but just let the words move through you and the images and feelings arise.
Like the wild geese, Oliver repeats her message "over and over" in this poem and others. Her poetry is smooth and shiny like clear pebbles of rain, but also sometimes harsh, and strangely exciting.
What meaning is the phrase "the world" for Oliver? This reference is made frequently in her work. In her essay Owls she says "There is only one world." In The Dipper"Oliver writes: "The world is full of leaves and feathers and comfort and instruction. "
"Whoever you are, no matter how lonely." Salvation is universal for Oliver, we "do not have to be good." We do not have to suffer to earn it. A universalist is one who believes salvation is extended to all human kind, a universal rain.
Beginning with images of sin, suffering and aloneness, she leads us to " over and over announcing your place in the family of things." That word "things" struck me as harsh for someone so attuned to nature's beauty and spirit. But I think she purposely chose to juxtapose the words "family" and "things." If we humble ourselves and include ourselves as no better than all the other creatures (which we often treat as no more than "things'), and 'things' like rain and trees, we then honor our vulnerable animal nature, return to our roots, find our place in the family and, like the wild geese, head for home. Yes, it might seem harsh, but also exciting, and comforting, like rain in a desert.
And perhaps that is the sin suggested here, setting ourselves up as superior to and separate from to the rest of 'the world,' the rest of nature. When we let go of our exalted human status we can access the freely offered salvation, an antidote for our despair and loneliness, our human angst. It is a letting go, not an effort, not an endurance, not a sacrifice, but a receptive act. Oliver counsels: Live simply. Live in the joy of the body. In "Such Singing in the Wild Branches" she says: "First, I stood still, and thought of nothing. Then I began to listen, Then I was filled with gladness. I seemed to float, to be a wing or a tree, and I began to understand what the bird was saying, and time stopped." And in "Yes! No," we read "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work." And in The Swan: The path to heaven--its in the imagination with which you perceive the world, and the gestures with which you honor it. In Long Afternoon, she tells us "Everyday I walk out into the world, to be dazzled, then to be reflective. It suffices, it is all comfort, along with human love."