Mary Oliver – “Meeting the Fox”
When I met the fox today – such living
gold in its eyes –
neither of us
moved though only
one of us was instantly taken up with
admiration. Its legs were
braced in their motion
of sudden stop,
its ears were pricked forward
to hear what my language might be,
but I said
nothing, there was no word for the
hope I had that we
could be friends. Behind it
the hillside, then the woods,
then the entire universe.
I stood as still as a rock.
I didn’t know what to do.
Then I thought, oh well,
why not try, and I
held out my hands
in friendship, and instantly,
with a sharp bark, a very
on its narrow and elegant feet,
back up the hillside
and into that other world
I think that for the next few days, I’ll be posting nature-oriented poems.
I have ambivalent feelings about Mary Oliver. On the one hand, her often admiring and vivid descriptions of nature appeal to me. On the other hand, her language and form don’t really impress me. Her choice of line breaks seems arbitrary, and I detect little or no sense of rhythm or sonic motifs. Her poems are more like flash fiction/vignettes in line breaks than poetry.
All that applies to this poem. Still, I like the “living gold” in the fox’s eyes – she has a good sense of selecting evocative detail like that. And I like “its ears were pricked forward / to hear what my language might be”; although sometimes her poems do seem to lack depth, I do think she has moments like this that offer something more than literal description. It is as if the fox’s simple act of being alert to sounds of danger or identification mean something more than that by phrasing it this way; the use of “language” implies some intangible connection between human and fox.
Then she goes on to the failure of language to capture the experience, and the sense of cosmic significance in this trivial meeting by imagining localities being part of larger realms.
And yet, at the end, the fox rejects this idea of connectedness, barking his “decisive negative” at her offer of friendship. And though the speaker imagines them both part of a larger universe, he flees to “that other world.” These things do make me think about nature in more than one way. I agree with many of the criticisms of Oliver’s work from a literary point of view, but I don’t agree that she oversentimentalizes nature. She does have a loving gaze toward it, but I think that, in moments like this, she recognizes the difference between her attitudes about nature and the reality (or the attitudes of non-human beings).