About the author : Morgan Griffith

This is a reprint of a piece originally published by The New Lyceum on January 18th, 2019

The last cigar I smoked was in a room full of books. It was a Romeo y Julieta and it was insufferable. The cigar’s light kept failing, for I was too focused on the room and the moment. There are days in a man’s life that, looking back, he wishes he would have showered for; days that, had he known before it’s sun rose, he would have donned his best and walked lightly through it. It was one of those days.

It was my sophomore year of college and I had just proposed to my now wife the week prior. The library was that of Dr. Peter Schramm’s and the cigar was his humidor’s last. Just a number of months before his death, Dr. Schramm invited me over his house to discuss my engagement and future plans. We talked of neither.

Our colliding ironies were clear: I was entering life and he knew he was leaving it. After we sat down and he offered me a glass of whiskey, he asked me if I had ever read any Mary Oliver. I had not, I returned somewhat bashfully. To this day I do not know whether this question was deliberate or incautious. With many thousands of books surrounding us, he picked up one that could not have been but fifty pages in length and opened it to the only sticky note within its small volume and then looked out the window. A minute went by and then another.

When he returned to the room, he was crying. Dr. Schramm was a large Hungarian man; a man that made a friend of mine cry during their entrance interview to the Ashbrook Scholar Program; a man whose very appearance commanded the room. But today, he cried and sank into his chair. Without an intro or preliminary remarks, he read out loud Mary Oliver’s poem, Such Singing in the Wild Branches. This “pure and white moment,” to quote Oliver, changed my life forever.

First, I stood still
And thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness—
And that’s when it happened,

When I seemed to float,
To be, myself, a wing or a tree—
And I began to understand
What the bird was saying,

Dr. Schramm forced a pause, his tears overtaking the clarity of Oliver’s voice.

And the sands in the glass stopped
For a pure white moment
While gravity sprinkled upward
Like rain, rising.

He repeated, looking out the window once again,

Like rain, rising.

In Ellen Tucker’s beautiful essay, Thinking with Peter on Poetry and Education, she remembers her friend commenting on poetry’s “virginity.” Dr. Schramm argued that “every poem you and I have ever read contains words we’ve already encountered, but they’re made new because of the way they’re put together.” That, in a sense, poetry’s simple, common, and clear “virginity startles” the soul of man “into awareness.”

Like rain, rising.

Dr. Schramm loved the virginity of poetry, but he also loved its youth. Oliver’s poem describes a spring journey into a wood to catch sight of a thrush, who, “in an island of shade” and with its “red-brown feathers all trim and neat for the new year” fills her with supreme “gladness.” She writes of the forest opening up in chorus as one being—one harmony—and her being swept up in its gloriously sustained note. In a 2012 interview with NPR, Oliver claimed that, “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear.” Clarity is indeed youthful; clarity is familiar; clarity is sitting still and thinking of nothing but saying everything; it is a thing to search for and a thing that is unsearchable.

Like rain, rising.

Perhaps it was this awareness that Dr. Peter Schramm attempted to startle within me. Perhaps, looking out the window, he saw his thrush and the clarity of its truth. Regardless, my dear and passing friend’s tears were just one part of Oliver’s spring forest’s harmony and that is clear.

This week, we mourn the loss of another dear friend, Mary Oliver—she was 83. Her short volumes overwhelm my writing desk in my home’s library, although thousands of other volumes form a canopy all around me. They are short but today they are heavy. Like Oliver’s poems exemplify and Dr. Schramm’s extended stare out his window displays, however, this is only my library—my true “study is out of doors.”

Maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
But so much light wrapping itself around us—

Perhaps, death is, Like rain, rising.

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