'I Go Down to the Shore' by Mary Oliver

A Reflection

by Carol O'Connor

I Go Down to the Shore

I go down to the shore in the morning

and depending on the hour the waves

are rolling in or moving out,

and I say, oh, I am miserable,

what shall -

what should I do? And the sea says

in its lovely voice:

Excuse me, I have work to do.

from A Thousand Mornings, 2012

There’s no doubt about it, Mary Oliver has that gift in her poetry for keeping us on our toes. With a sense of ease she can draw us into an intimate setting, position us carefully, then without warning pull the carpet right from under our feet. One moment we can be lamenting our sorrowful lot to Mother Nature anticipating sympathetic response. The next, by means of a gracious but firm rebuff, we’re pushed back onto our own resources. The opening expectation in this poem is completely upended by the last line: ‘Excuse me, I have work to do.’ For a substance so fluid and supple, the sea’s character is yet unyielding and resolute. Whilst not rejecting our troubled, searching self, it courteously reminds us that to be fully human means learning to swim in all seasonal tides. This includes encountering really difficult undercurrents. The sea carries this knowledge in its own ebb and flow; communicates it via ‘its lovely voice.’

I love pondering the epigraphs, those quotes chosen by Mary Oliver to preface each volume of her poetry. They contextualise her work in a wider literary sphere, invite a lens from which to view the poems in each volume. These epigraphs also give us a clue to her own mindset at particular stages in her life. I Go Down to the Shore is from the volume: A Thousand Mornings. This volume has two epigraphs: The life that I could still live, I should live, and the thoughts that I could still think, I should think - C.J, Jung, The Red Book and Anything worth thinking about is worth singing about - Bob Dylan, The Essential Interviews

One of my favourites is the line prefacing her volume Evidence: We create ourselves by our choices - Kierkegaard

Both these volumes of poetry were published in the years soon after the death of Mary Oliver’s partner for over 40 years, Molly Malone Cook in 2005. Increasingly Mary Oliver’s poetry urges the reader to choose to live a life that contains empathy, connection, presence, this ‘only once’ experience of life. It also invites us to turn our attention towards those things which are sustaining, nourishing, offer beauty. Suffering is real, lament is necessary, but so too more life-giving is our capacity for joy and re-awakening. This happens when we intuitively identify with that ‘wild silky part of ourselves.’ Noticing, as in her poem Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night, the ‘expressive sounds’ a dog makes when ‘he turns upside down, his four paws in the air /and his eyes dark and fervent’ (Dog Songs p51), the motion of a swan over water, as in her poem The Swan, and their ‘miraculous muscles’ and ‘clouds’ of wings. (Owls and Other Fantasies p10) - by noticing such in the world we are then able to respond with gestures that are honourable, partake in dialogues that are loving.

Why do we go down to the shore? To seek consolation, to hear echoes of our own 'miserable' state? Or to be re-awakened into choosing to live in a way that may not be prescribed, but is signified by kindness, by singing, by empathy and connection? And therefore risk being reimagined, recreated into a more fully alive human being.

A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver

The Penguin Press, NY, 2012

Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver

Beacon Press, Massachusetts,2009

Dog Songs: Poems by Mary Oliver

The Penguin Press, NY, 2013

Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays by Mary Oliver

Beacon Press, Massachusetts, 2003