Abstract: This paper intends to examine some representative poems of Mary Oliver which critique the andro-anthropocentric assumptions about Woman and Nature. Her poems are centred on the celebration of both the sexuality of woman and the richness of Nature which help uphold their specific identities respectively. Poems like “Honey at the Table” and “Honey Tree” contradict the argument of feminists that they cannot ignore biology but do not need to embrace explanations based on biology. These poems instead adhere to the ecofeminist argument that we need a concrete understanding of the position of women in human-Nature relations. “Honey at the Table” challenges the patriarchal paradigms about Nature by retracing the roots of the honey from the honey pot on the table to the treetop, to the wilderness.
Keywords: female sexuality, women’s spirituality, ecofeminism, female body, position of women, nature relations, patriarchy, andro-anthropocentricism
Feel your natural tendencies toward multi-layered perceptions, empathy, compassion, unity and harmony. Feel your wholeness. Feel our oneness. Feel the elemental source of our power. Discard the patriarchal patterns of alienation, fear, enmity, aggression, and destruction…the authentic female mind is our salvation.’ (Spretnak)
French feminist theories of writing the body argue that woman’s sexuality is described in phallic discourses as a mirror of and compliment of male desire. They argue for a celebration of women, their bodies, their sexual pleasure as erotically autonomous from male desire and attempt to create a symbolic language that will speak women’s sexuality, and women’s pleasure and jouissance, outside of phallic discourse.
Spiritual feminists who argue for a distinctive women’s spirituality claim that it will provide a basis for women’s empowerment outside patriarchal control. Feminist spirituality is earth-based and not heaven-directed. It provides a female image of spirituality, often in the form of a goddess, and celebrates the spiritual nature of the physical world and women’s bodies. They delight in discovering the
sacred link between the Goddess in her many guises and totemic animals and plants, sacred groves, and womblike caves,…the experience of knowing Gaia, her voluptuous contours and fertile plains, her flowing waters that give life, her animal teachers (Spertnak, 1990:5)
Mary Oliver, Denis Levertov, etc have written nature poems belonging to this genre with a definite political intention of being part of a movement that questions the traditional patriarchal/capitalistic attitude towards woman and Nature which treats both as without identity. They are essentially critiques of the ecologically destructive social order in which we live. They employ a deconstruction of naturalised assumptions of Nature/Woman and the hierarchies that we have constructed, condemning them to merely resources/sources of consumption instead of acknowledging them as subjects with identity.
Mary Oliver’s poems call into question patriarchal structures, which destroy ecology and thereby spell the end of human kind. She questions the hierarchies of race, gender and culture as well as the distinction drawn between the primacy of human kind and the non human world. Like many ecofeminists with a philosophical background, she associates the destructiveness of Nature which results from the forms of knowledge and belief that justify and legitimise western patriarchy- mainly the Christian and nationalist rejection of the body and prioritisation of the mind and soul.
Even though Oliver does not go further in the theory to equate woman-Nature domination she argues that woman as well as Nature have an intrinsic value or are sacred. She opposes the controversial concept of finding a ‘natural’ affinity between woman and Nature which would mean essentialising and universalising women, and instead turns the social construction to the advantage of both as dominated and supposed living entities under a common hierarchic dualistic patriarchy. Her poetry presents an ecological worldview that calls in to question poetry from an ecocritical or more specifically ecofeministic perspective.
This paper intends to examine some representative poems of Mary Oliver which critique the andro-anthropocentric assumptions about Woman and Nature. Her poems are centred on the celebration of both the sexuality of woman and the richness of Nature which help uphold their specific identities respectively. Poems like “Honey at the Table” and “Honey Tree” contradict the argument of feminists that they cannot ignore biology but do not need to embrace explanations based on biology. These poems instead adhere to the ecofeminist argument that we need a concrete understanding of the position of women in human-Nature relations. “Honey at the Table” challenges the patriarchal paradigms about Nature by retracing the roots of the honey from the honey pot on the table to the treetop, to the wilderness.
It fills you with the soft
essence of vanished flowers, it becomes a trickle sharp as a hair that you follow from the honey pot over the table
and out of the door and over the ground
. . . . . deep in the forest you
shuffle up some tree, you rip the bark (Oliver, 1983: 1-11)
The female identity is closely linked with her sexuality. It is difficult to understand as is to collect sweet honey from a comb. The destruction of the comb in the process of possessing honey is an encroachment into and decentering of the female space as it makes the bee-queen homeless. This is a symbolic explanation of the complexities of a woman’s identity, which is damaged in the process of sexual exploitation.”You float into and swallow the dripping combs,/ bits of the tree, crushed bees…a taste/ composed of everything lost” (Oliver, 1983:12-14)
The poet makes a self realising quest in her search for the honey’s roots. Thus the paradigmatic processes which have legitimised the andro- anthropocentric occupation of the Natural and the female world are subverted in the poem. The honey in the pot fills her “with the soft essence of vanished flowers”(Oliver, 1983:1-2) which she follows out of the house as its trail thickens, “grows deeper and wilder, edged/ with pine boughs and wet boulders,/ paw prints of bobcat and bear”(Oliver, 1983:7-9) until it tastes of both the sweetness of self-assertion and the pain of exploitation, manifested as “you float into and swallow the dripping combs,/ bits of the tree, crushed bees… a taste/ composed of everything lost, in which everything lost is found.”(Oliver, 1983:12-14) Another poem, “Wild Geese” is a strong assertion of space by the woman in the overtly male dominated world. It is a celebration of female sexuality through the metaphor of the ‘wild geese.’ The patriarchal notions of the role of a woman are challenged by Mary Oliver when she cries:
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 (1994:1-4)
Social constructs of Nature and woman are subverted to create a strong bond between the two exploited identities:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
the world offers itself to your imagination
calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place in the family of things (1994: 14-18)
Nature for Oliver is a symbol of spirituality which can be a source of empowerment for women, as Carol Christ says, “the fierce new love of the divine in themselves.” (1992: 274)
In “The HoneyTree” also, Oliver adheres to the ecofeminist perspective of engaging with women’s embodiment as sexed beings. She believes that human embodiment represents the fact that human beings live not only in a historical and social context, but also an ecological and biological one and hence are part of an encompassing ecosystem. Oliver also envisages an ecofeministic society which is egalitarian and ecologically sustainable.
And so at last I climbed the honey tree, ate chunks of pure light, ate the bodies of bees that could not
get out of my way, ate
the dark hair of the leaves, the rippling bark,
the heart wood. Such frenzy! But joy does that,
I’m told in the beginning (1983: 1-10)
The values she celebrates are not material success but personal transformation through an understanding of being part of Nature – the ability to be amazed by life, to live every second:
Oh anyone can see
how I love myself at last!
How I love the world! Climbing
by day or night in the wind, in the leaves, kneeling at the secret rip, the cords
of my body stretching and singing in the heaven of appetite (1983: 21-28)
In her collection of essays, Winter Hours (1999), Oliver substantiates her position as a nature poet thus
I believe in the soul- in mine, and yours, and the blue-jays, and the pilot whales. I believe each gold flinch flying away over the ragweed has a soul, and the ragweed too, plant by plant, and the tiny stones in the earth below and the grains of the earth as well. Not romantically do I believe this, nor poetically, nor emotionally, nor metaphorically…but steadily, lumpishly, absolutely. (107-8)
Like many cultural and spiritual feminists, she advocates the possibility of universal kinship between humanity and the natural world. She asserts through her poems that all human beings have a body and hence must engage themselves, in some way or the other with Nature and the non-human world in order to survive. Hence they are analyses of the relationship between male domination, women and Nature. They are also challenges to the hierarchical power relations which characterise the Western society and are destructive to both women and environment. She argues for a healthy principle which accommodates all relationships
– human-human and human-Nature relations – which should be co- operative, egalitarian and ecologically sustainable for peaceful survival Mary Mellor would classify this as “holism”, which according to her represents “the immanence of humanity in its enfolding ecosystem.” (1997: 196), and which transcends all ego boundaries based on race, class or gender.
Christ, Carol. “Spiritual Quest and Women’s Experience”.Woman spirit rising. Ed. Carol.P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. New York: Harper Collins.1992. 274. Print.
Mellor, Mary. Feminist Ecology. Cambridge: Polity P, 1997. 196, Print.
Oliver, Mary. Winter Hours. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 107-8. Print
—. “Honey at the Table,” American Primitive. New York: Back Bay, 1983. 57. Print.
—. “The Honey Tree,” ibid. 81. Print.
—. “Wild Geese”. Dream Work. MA: Atlantic Monthly Express, 1994. Print.
—. Winter Hours. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 107-8. Print.
Spretnak, Charlene. The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. New York: Doubleday. 1982. 573. Print.
Spertnak, Charlene. “Ecofeminism: Our Roots and Flowering”. Reweaving the World. Ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein. San Fransisco: Sierra Club, 1990, 5. Print.
K. USHA. Is Associate Professor, NSS College, Ottapalam