My Little Poem: ‘Gethsemane’, by Mary Oliver
A lot of people love Mary Oliver — even people who don’t love a lot of poetry. I discovered her in college, when she won the Pulitzer for American Primitive, and her work continues to be an inspiration to me. Her love for the natural world imbues almost everything she wrote, whether it was a proper nature poem or a love poem. What she does in “Gethsemane” is unique: she uses nature to write a religious poem.
“Gethesemane” is about what happens in the Garden of Gethsemane, on Holy Thursday, one week ago today, when Jesus prayed in the garden and his apostles slept.
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe the wind wound itself
into a silver tree, and didn’t move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.
The first naturey moment of this poem that draws me in is not the grass or the roses or the lily, but the cricket. Who else but Mary Oliver writes about a cricket — a singular cricket, not plural — with “such splendid fringe on its feet”? Most religious poems don’t mention insects. But while “the disciples slept,” the cricket likely provided the long night’s soundtrack.
Then Oliver turns to the stars, to the wind’s “silver tree,” to the lake’s “blue pavement” where Jesus walked on water. She speculates that all of these might have been awake that night while Jesus’ friends slept.
To betray, like Judas, is one thing. To deny, like Peter, is another. But to fall asleep? It’s just plain embarrassing. And it’s what I, an early-to-bed-girl, would have done. That’s why I love this poem, that “this too must be part of the story.”
How do we hold this animal part of ourselves? By going to nature. Let us be schooled by the cricket. Let us gaze with the “secret eye” of the lily. If we can’t keep the vigil, perhaps some other thing, something wild and alive, can.
I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro