The challenge of leading a life of reason is that pain and logic can consume us. Rather than become lost to the world, the world becomes lost to us. We must choose either to embrace or disdain life and its imperfections.
As I feathered through the pages of Mary Oliver’s House of Light, I noted that I was not the first to do so. My library copy nears the age of 43; an old-fashioned due date table indicates that the first reader visited the poetry collection on August 16, 1990.
And people say time machines don’t exist.
We often forget that the first words of a literary work are not found in the epilogue, introduction, or table of contents. It is in the title itself. House of Light is a fascinating one, simple in its arrangement but substantial in its meaning. Oliver captures the gravity of her work in this phrase interweaving nature and civilization. She suggests that light exists everywhere, but only if we accept it, only if we build a home for it to breathe in.
Though contagiously optimistic, Oliver grapples with the “great and cruel” enigma of the world. For her, soluble truths whisper in the wonderful and mysterious mechanisms of nature. It takes courage to equally love its lightness and darkness. “If the world were only pain and logic,” she questions, “who would want it?”
However, that is not the case. According to Oliver, the light is everywhere, even in death: “maybe death/isn’t darkness, after all,/but so much light/wrapping itself around us.”
The reflections in her poems often contend with prophets. These not only include traditional ones like Jesus or Buddha, but also artists like Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and Gustav Mahler. In Oliver’s “Ich Bin Der Welt Abhanden Gekommen,” the eponymous song translates to “I am lost to the world.” She wandered over an idyllic landscape accompanied only by Mahler’s composition and her “delicious dark happiness.” Regardless of whether the world knows nothing of us, she proposes, we can still delight in it, finding companionship in strangers from different epochs of time.
The challenge of leading a life of reason, as Oliver underpins, is that pain and logic can consume us. Rather than become lost to the world, the world becomes lost to us. We must choose either to embrace or disdain life and its imperfections. Nature operates independently and indifferently to human will, yet we can choose to have an attitudinal shift, allowing ourselves to be “dazzled—to cast aside the weight of facts/and maybe even/to float a little/above this difficult world.”
Briefly subduing reason and invoking wonder can aid us in the rebellion against the bizarre, illogical, and painfully paradoxical elements of the world. In this regard, mortality can be perceived as just another beautiful function of nature, our last embrace by light. Why fear oblivion when we may become the dark flower of a crow or the mighty arm of a tree?
I return the copy, feeling the warmth of the aged pages containing their own light, words that are just as alive as the reader who sees them. I wonder if the readers in the October of 1990 and the February of 1994 found their own house of light.
As I relinquish this copy to my library drop-off, I allow myself, not for the last time, to be amazed by this stranger who created a small sun for me to carry around.