The Silver Water Crushes Like Silk

N. Pirosmani, “Roe Deer Drinking from a Stream”

Spiritual Sunday

When I posted Mary Oliver’s “The Fawn” on Easter Sunday, I became aware, for the first time, just how many of her poems are structured by a Good Friday-Resurrection progression. Although Oliver almost never mentions religion in her works—the church bells in “The Fawn” may be as close as she ever comes—in any number of poems one finds a journey from desolate imagery (forcing oneself through brambles, plodding through a swamp) to sudden, miraculous revelation.

In a poem like “Egrets,” for instance (which I posted on here), she describes a kind of crucifixion as the speaker forces herself through a pathless wood:

I could not
save my arms
from thorns; soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.

Ultimately, however, the long hard trek concludes in mystical revelation as she sees three egrets that transcend the world of logic and “step[] over every dark thing”:

–a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them—
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.

Oliver seems to be very much in the tradition of Emily Dickinson when it comes to spiritual experience. Dickinson was just more overt in talking about God in nature. (See my post here on her poem “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to the Church.”) Dickinson seems to fall within the Gnostic tradition that Harold Bloom says is foundational to American religion. Bloom says that most American worshippers see themselves as having a spirit that is in close relationship to God. As intellectual historian Henry May sums up Bloom’s formulation, this spirit is “an uncreated ‘spark of God,’ totally isolated from and older than the created world.” In this formulation, Bloom says (in May’s words) that “knowledge and experience of God can be achieved only through some sort of special revelation.”

Oliver is constantly searching for something beyond herself, with which she desires to be ecstatically united. As we are still in the Easter season, here’s another poem where we see her emerging from the night, with its “black waterfalls,” its “craven doubt.” Healing comes with the dawn, and at the sight of a deer drinking, your heart “wants more, you’re ready/to rise and look!/to hurry anywhere/to believe in everything.”

It sure sounds like Resurrection morning to me.

Morning at Great Pond

By Mary Oliver

It starts like this:
forks of light
slicking up
out of the east,
flying over you,
and what’s left of night–
its black waterfalls,
its craven doubt –
dissolves like gravel
as the sun appears
trailing clouds
of pink and green wool,
igniting the fields,
turning the ponds
to plates of fire.
The creatures there
are dark flickerings
you make out
one by one
as the light lifts –
great blue herons,
wood ducks shaking
their shimmering crests –
and knee-deep
in the purple shallows
a deer drinking:
as she turns
the silver water
crushes like silk,
shaking the sky,
and you’re healed then
from the night, your heart
wants more, you’re ready
to rise and look!
to hurry anywhere!
to believe in everything.

A Note on the Artist: Years ago I saw a magical film based on the life of Niko Pirosmani, the 19th and early 20th Russian primitivist. I’ve never been able to track the film down but you can see other paintings by him at

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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