Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?
Poets are able to capture in words and images ideas which escape even the most able of philosophers. In this poem Mary Oliver considers the question of the soul by reference to what she knew best – her poignant observations of all that is going on in the natural world. She has described her work as an attempt to ‘listen convivially to the world’. In this poem she listens and watches for the answers to questions about the soul, by seeking after all that is not human.
Classical Christian theology tells us that a soul is a particular feature of humanity, not of animals; this poem questions that idea and even makes it seem a faintly ridiculous suggestion. She sees in the face of the moose the same sadness that she sees in Jesus: perhaps at the folly of humanity and our neglect and lack of care of the natural world – I wonder what sadness she means?
Why should a human mother have a soul and not the anteater... and what about the trees? And the little stones... surely few of us have not been moved by a visit to the enormity of Chesil beach made up of so many tiny, perfectly round and smooth pebbles. The natural world is full of wonder for Mary Oliver (and for us) – how could it not be utterly infused with the presence of God? What about the grass? Enjoy the wonder around all us this autumn and in it know God’s blessing.
Revd Claire McClelland, Team Vicar, St Peter's Church