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Dream Work

Dream Work

by Mary Oliver

Paperback(First Edition)

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Dream Work, a collection of forty-five poems, follows both chronologically and logically Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1983. The depth and diversity of perceptual awareness — so steadfast and radiant in American Primitive — continues in Dream Work. Additionally, she has turned her attention in these poems to the solitary and difficult labors of the spirit — to accepting the truth about one’s personal world, and to valuing the triumphs while transcending the failures of human relationships.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780871130693
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 01/07/1994
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 40,441
Product dimensions: 5.52(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.29(d)

About the Author

Mary Oliver is one of the most celebrated and best-selling poets in America. Her books include Red Bird; Our World; Thirst; Blue Iris; New and Selected Poems, Volume One; and New and Selected Poems, Volume Two. She has also published five books of prose, including Rules for the Dance and, most recently, Long Life. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

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Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing kept flickering in with the tide and looking around.
Black as a fisherman's boot,
with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know what a smile means,
don't you?

* * *

I wanted the past to go away, I wanted to leave it, like another country; I wanted my life to close, and open like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song where it falls down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
I wanted to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,
whoever I was, I was

alive for a little while.

* * *

It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don't know what they were,
huddled in the highest ripples as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body one gesture, one black sleeve that could fit easily around the bodies of three small fish.

* * *

Also I wanted to be able to love. And we all know how that one goes,
don't we?

* * *

the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.

You don't want to hear the story of my life, and anyway I don't want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it's the same old story —
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to swim through the fires to stay in this world.

And look! look! look! I think those little fish better wake up and dash themselves away from the hopeless future that is bulging toward them.

* * *

And probably,
if they don't waste time looking for an easier world,

they can do it.


Every morning the world is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun the heaped ashes of the night turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear like black cloth on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature to be happy you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit carries within it the thorn

that is heavier than lead —
if it's all you can do to keep on trudging —

there is still somewhere deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not you have ever dared to pray.


All summer I made friends with the creatures nearby —
they flowed through the fields and under the tent walls,
or padded through the door,
grinning through their many teeth,
looking for seeds,
suet, sugar; mutttering and humming,
opening the breadbox, happiest when there was milk and music. But once in the night I heard a sound outside the door, the canvas bulged slightly — something was pressing inward at eye level.
I watched, trembling, sure I had heard the click of claws, the smack of lips outside my gauzy house —
I imagined the red eyes,
the broad tongue, the enormous lap.
Would it be friendly too?
Fear defeated me. And yet,
not in faith and not in madness but with the courage I thought my dream deserved,
I stepped outside. It was gone.
Then I whirled at the sound of some shambling tonnage.
Did I see a black haunch slipping back through the trees? Did I see the moonlight shining on it?
Did I actually reach out my arms toward it, toward paradise falling, like the fading of the dearest, wildest hope —
the dark heart of the story that is all the reason for its telling?


Every spring among the ambiguities of childhood

the hillsides grew white with the wild trilliums.
I believed in the world.
Oh, I wanted

to be easy in the peopled kingdoms,
to take my place there,
but there was none

that I could find shaped like me.
So I entered through the tender buds,

I crossed the cold creek,
my backbone and my thin white shoulders unfolding and stretching.

From the time of snow-melt,
when the creek roared and the mud slid and the seeds cracked,

I listened to the earth-talk,
the root-wrangle,
the arguments of energy,
the dreams lying

just under the surface,
then rising,
becoming at the last moment

flaring and luminous —
the patient parable of every spring and hillside year after difficult year.


You are the dark song of the morning;
serious and slow,
you shave, you dress,
you descend the stairs in your public clothes and drive away, you become the wise and powerful one who makes all the days possible in the world.
But you were also the red song in the night,
stumbling through the house to the child's bed,
to the damp rose of her body,
leaving your bitter taste.
And forever those nights snarl the delicate machinery of the days.
When the child's mother smiles you see on her cheekbones a truth you will never confess;
and you see how the child grows —
timidly, crouching in corners.
Sometimes in the wide night you hear the most mournful cry,
a ravished and terrible moment.
In your dreams she's a tree that will never come to leaf —
in your dreams she's a watch you dropped on the dark stones till no one could gather the fragments —
in your dreams you have sullied and murdered,
and dreams do not lie.


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.


Something just now moved through my heart like the thinnest of blades as that red-tail pumped once with its great wings and flew above the gray, cracked rock wall.
It wasn't about the bird, it was something about the way stone stays mute and put, whatever goes flashing by.
when I sit like this, quiet,
all the dreams of my blood and all outrageous divisions of time seem ready to leave,
to slide out of me.
Then, I imagine, I would never move.
By now the hawk has flown five miles at least,
dazzling whoever else has happened to look up.
I was dazzled. But that wasn't the knife.
It was the sheer, dense wall of blind stone without a pinch of hope or a single unfulfilled desire sponging up and reflecting,
so brilliantly,
as it has for centuries,
the sun's fire.


Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast terrible shadows, that each of the so-called senseless acts has its thread looping back through the world and into a human heart.
And meanwhile the gold-trimmed thunder wanders the sky; the river may be filling the cellars of the sleeping town.
Cyclone, fire, and their merry cousins bring us to grief — but these are the hours with the old wooden-god faces;
we lift them to our shoulders like so many black coffins, we continue walking into the future. I don't mean there are no bodies in the river,
or bones broken by the wind. I mean everyone who has heard the lethal train-roar of the tornado swears there was no mention ever of any person, or reason — I mean the waters rise without any plot upon history, or even geography. Whatever power of the earth rampages, we turn to it dazed but anonymous eyes; whatever the name of the catastrophe, it is never the opposite of love.


All night the dark buds of dreams open richly.

In the center of every petal is a letter,
and you imagine

if you could only remember and string them all together they would spell the answer.
It is a long night,

and not an easy one —
you have so many branches,
and there are diversions —
birds that come and go,

the black fox that lies down to sleep beneath you,
the moon staring with her bone-white eye.

Finally you have spent all the energy you can and you drag from the ground the muddy skirt of your roots

and leap awake with two or three syllables like water in your mouth and a sense

of loss — a memory not yet of a word,
certainly not yet the answer —
only how it feels

when deep in the tree all the locks click open,
and the fire surges through the wood,
and the blossoms blossom.


In one day the Amazon discharges into the Atlantic the equivalent of New York City's water supply for nine years.

— New York Times

Just because I was born precisely here or there,
in some cold city or other,
don't think I don't remember how I came along like a grain carried by the flood

on one of the weedy threads that pour toward a muddy lightning,
surging east, past monkeys and parrots, past trees with their branches in the clouds, until I was spilled forth

and slept under the blue lung of the Caribbean.

Nobody told me this. But little by little the smell of mud and leaves returned to me,
and in dreams I began to turn,
to sense the current.

Do dreams lie? Once I was a fish crying for my sisters in the sprawling crossroads of the delta.
Once among the reeds I found a boat, as thin and lonely as a young tree. Nearby the forest sizzled with the afternoon rain.

Home, I said.
In every language there is a word for it.
In the body itself, climbing those walls of white thunder, past those green temples, there is also a word for it.
I said, home.


Afterward I found under my left shoulder the most curious wound.
As though I had leaned against some whirring thing,
it bleeds secretly.
Nobody knows its name.

for a reason more right than rational,
I thought of that fat German in his ill-fitting overcoat in the woods near Vienna, realizing that the birds were going farther and farther away, and no matter how fast he walked he couldn't keep up.

How does any of us live in this world?
One thing compensates for another, I suppose.
Sometimes what's wrong does not hurt at all, but rather shines like a new moon.

I often think of Beethoven rising, when he couldn't sleep,
stumbling through the dust and crumpled papers,
yawning, settling at the piano,
inking in rapidly note after note after note.


Hardly a day passes I don't think of him in the asylum: younger

than I am now, trudging the long road down through madness toward death.

Everywhere in this world his music explodes out of itself, as he

could not. And now I understand something so frightening, and wonderful —

how the mind clings to the road it knows, rushing through crossroads, sticking

like lint to the familiar. So!
Hardly a day passes I don't

think of him: nineteen, say, and it is spring in Germany

and he has just met a girl named Clara.
He turns the corner,

he scrapes the dirt from his soles,
he runs up the dark staircase, humming.


I rise by lamplight and hurry out to the bay where the gulls like white

ghosts swim in the shallows —
I rake and rake down to the gray stones,

the clenched quahogs,
the deadweight fruits of the sea that bear inside their walls

a pink and salty one-lunged life;
we are all one family

but love ourselves best. Later I sit on the dawn-soaked shore and set a thin blade

into the slightly hissing space between the shells and slash through the crisp life-muscle; I put

what is in the shell into my mouth, and when the gulls come begging I feed them too.

How detailed and hopeful,
how exact everything is in the light,
on the rippling sand,

at the edge of the turning tide —
its upheaval —
its stunning proposal —
its black, anonymous roar.


That winter it seemed the city was always burning — night after night the flames leaped, the ladders pitched forward.
Scorched but alive, the homeless wailed as they ran for the cold streets.
That winter my mind had turned around,
shedding, like leaves, its bolts of information —
drilling down, through history,
toward my motionless heart.
Those days I was willing, but frightened.
What I mean is, I wanted to live my life but I didn't want to do what I had to do to go on, which was: to go back.
All winter the fires kept burning,
the smoke swirled, the flames grew hotter.
I began to curse, to stumble and choke.
Everything, solemnly, drove me toward it —
the crying out, that's so hard to do.
Then over my head the red timbers floated,
my feet were slippers of fire, my voice crashed at the truth, my fists smashed at the flames to find the door —
wicked and sad, mortal and bearable,
it fell open forever as I burned.


Something screamed from the fringes of the swamp.
It was Banyan,
the old merchant.

It was the hundred-legged tree, walking again.

The cattle egrets flew out into the sunlight like so many pieces of white ribbon.

The watersnakes slipped down the banks like green hooks and floated away.

Banyan groaned.
A knee down in the east corner buckled,

a gray shin rose, and the root,
wet and hairy,
sank back in, a little closer.

Then a voice like a howling wind deep in the leaves said:
I'll tell you a story about a seed.

About a seed flying into a tree, and eating it little by little.

About a small tree that becomes a huge tree and wants to travel.

Listen, said the voice.
This is your dream.

I'm only stopping here for a little while.
Don't be afraid.


Have you ever tried to slide into the heaven of sensation and met

you know not what resistance but it held you back? have you ever

turned on your shoulder helplessly, facing the white moon, crying
let me in? have you dared to count the months as they pass and the years

while you imagined pleasure,
shining like honey, locked in some secret tree? have you dared to feel the isolation gathering

intolerably and recognized what kinds of explosions can follow from an intolerable condition? have you walked out in the mornings

wherever you are in the world to consider all those gleaming and reasonless lives that flow outward and outward, easily, to the last moment the bulbs of their lungs,

their bones and their appetites,
can carry them? oh, have you looked wistfully into the flushed bodies of the flowers? have you stood,

staring out over the swamps, the swirling rivers where the birds like tossing fires flash through the trees, their bodies exchanging a certain happiness

in the sleek, amazing humdrum of nature's design —
blood's heaven, spirit's haven, to which you cannot belong?


In the time of snow, in the time of sleep.
The rivers themselves changed into links of white iron, holding everything. Once she woke deep in the leaves under the fallen tree and peered through the loose bark and saw him:
a tall white bone with thick shoulders, like a wrestler,
roaring the saw-toothed music of wind and sleet, legs pumping up and down the hills.
Well, she thought, he'll wear himself out running around like that.
She slept again while he drove on through the trees,
snapping off the cold pines, gasping,
rearranging over and over the enormous drifts. Finally one morning the sun rose up like a pot of blood and his knees buckled.
Well, she whispered from the leaves,
that's that. In the distance the ice began to boom and wrinkle and a dampness that could not be defeated began to come from her, her breathing enlarged, oh, tender mountain, she rearranged herself so that the cubs could slide from her body, so that the rivers would flow.


Ahead of me they were lighting their fires in the dark forests of death.

Should I name them?
Their names make a long branch of sound.

You know them.

* * *

I know death is the fascinating snake under the leaves, sliding and sliding; I know the heart loves him too, can't turn away, can't

break the spell. Everything wants to enter the slow thickness,
aches to be peaceful finally and at any cost.
Wants to be stone.

* * *

That time I wanted to die somebody was playing the piano in the room with me.

It was Mozart.
It was Beethoven.
It was Bruckner.

In the kitchen a man with one ear was painting a flower.

* * *

in the asylum,
I began to pick through the red rivers of confusion;

I began to take apart the deep stitches of nightmares.

This was good, human work.

This had nothing to do with laying down a path of words that could throttle,
or soften,
the human heart.

Yeats, in love and anger,
stood beside his fallen friends;
Whitman kept falling through the sleeve of ego.

In the back fields,
beyond the locked windows,
a young man who couldn't live long and knew it was listening to a plain brown bird that kept singing in the deep leaves,
that kept urging from him some wild and careful words.
You know that important and eloquent defense of sanity.

I forgive them their unhappiness,
I forgive them for walking out of the world.

But I don't forgive them for turning their faces away,
for taking off their veils and dancing for death —

for hurtling toward oblivion on the sharp blades of their exquisite poems, saying:
this is the way.

I was, of course, all that time coming along behind them, and listening for advice.

* * *

And the man who merely washed Michelangelo's brushes, kneeling on the damp bricks, staring every day at the colors pouring out of them,
lived to be a hundred years old.


Excerpted from "Dream Work"
by .
Copyright © 1986 Mary Oliver.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Note to Reader,
Morning Poem,
The Chance to Love Everything,
Wild Geese,
The River,
Robert Schumann,
The Fire,
Driving Through the Wind River Reservation: A Poem of Black Bear,
Members of the Tribe,
The Journey,
A Visitor,
The House,
Stanley Kunitz,
One or Two Things,
Marsh Hawks,
Bowing to the Empress,
The Turtle,
Two Kinds of Deliverance,
The Swimmer,
The Waves,
The Shark,
Storm in Massachusetts, September 1982,
Black Snakes,
The Moths,
At Sea,
1945?1985: Poem for the Anniversary,
At Loxahatchie,
Coming Home,
The Sunflowers,

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