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In Blackwater Woods Again
On the fires of loss whose other side is salvation.
Sheena Chakeres, Autum Landscape
Sunday morning at home. The hum of my children’s voices. The scent of cinnamon and pumpkin waffles. I roam from room to room, seeking a patch of autumn light on which to lay my mat. I settle on a place in the midst of it all, between the portal and the kitchen — only to discover this morning’s practice is simply to lay my tired heart in sunlight.
“In Blackwater Woods” is with me again. Some poems are like this — seasonal visitors. Some poems are very old friends.
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
-“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive
Mary Oliver published “In Blackwater Woods” in 1983, near the time when I was born. She won the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive a year later. It’s a feat I wonder about, as my mother (also named Mary and endowed with unassuming brilliance) accomplished things in her professional life and suffered notoriety for it.
I consider “In Blackwater Woods” a friend. You may, too. This was Mary’s magic. She made us feel like kin — muddling through the woods of life together until, possibly, stumbling into splendorous stillness.
There’s a story about how she once found herself in the woods with no writing implement, and thereafter began to hide pencils in the trees.
The moment of the season has arrived when I find myself once again in Blackwater Woods. Among its short lines and spare turns, this poem has offered me generous attendance over the years. Some years have felt like cinnamon and fulfillment. Some, like nameless ponds.
In Blackwater Woods, we come to witness. We are tasked with the joy and grief of this place. It’s a practice of bearing presence. Paradox is a formidable teacher. How can we embrace ephemerality? How can we give ourselves to grief while not allowing it to swallow us whole? How can we live in this world, hold it against our bones, knowing it can burn?
Make no mistake, Blackwater Woods is burning. Nevertheless, the cattails are our brothers and sisters. The autumn, our guide. The trees are golden in their essence. The setting (which my dear friend Lindsay, no stranger to Blackwater Woods, describes as no grand forest but a humble place…) shimmers with teachings.
Here, simplicity is resplendent. We give our attention. We study our namelessness, all that which was never ours to keep. We lay down in the sorrow and solace that touches everything. And, somehow, in so doing, we learn to live in this world with its watery depths and a singular word: salvation.