Musing on the News of Muses.

When poet Mary Oliver died in January, I was traveling; yet the news reached me–a text from a friend– when I stopped to stretch my legs.  I spent the rest of the day’s drive hoping my muse would catch up with me, or me with her, and allow a poetic tribute to crystalize and flow forth. Nothing brilliant launched, like Athena, fully formed, from my head; but, when I came to a stop, I wrote what came– as Mary Oliver herself did. She would start with simple observations of nature and trace the threads to universal wisdoms. Sometimes it went the other direction; a wise conceit grounded into universality by some phenomenon of nature.

I wrote:

News comes as one needs it;   

To a poet comes word that

Mary Oliver has closed her notebook,

Has passed the torch now to all the fires she stoked.

Poetry, an alchemy;

A Zen rake over the dulled river stones of language

Coaxes flint,

spark,

surprise,

recognition,

redemption.

With this news I felt impulse to compose

but found no words, only

Silence—

Teeming and grateful—

Silence,

Where all poetry is born

And where it returns,

along with every poet.

Beloved to beloved.

Wordless, Thunderous Thanks,

O’ Wise Flint Dust.

…And my pen ran out of ink just as I finished scribbling those words.

A few weeks later, just last week, Mark Hollis died. I expect fewer readers than know Mary Oliver’s name to know his. He was a musician. But since he and I had both long ago disconnected from the music business–him as a musician, me as a fan–I was impressed that, again, I got timely word. My cousin emailed me.  

Mark Hollis led the band Talk Talk. Their biggest hit in the U.S. was “It’s My Life.” I occasionally hear that on the radio; alas, more often I hear NoDoubt’s un-imaginative cover of the song. But as long as Mark was getting royalties, I don’t mind.  Covers are a form of tribute.

While Talk Talk lodged a few hits in the British pop firmament, Mark Hollis’s more poignant legacy was what came after. He insisted on making music that challenged pop ears, that left that heady, cotton-candy world far behind and went spelunking in the depths. He many lost listeners, of course, but he gained respect.  TalkTalk’s last two albums remain critically admired and far more influential than even Mark Hollis may have known. I was heartened by the number of tributes and column inches he received in the (mostly British) press upon news of his passing. 

I listened to a few of his songs in commemoration. The man’s voice was like no other; it dripped with grief; and many of his songs use that to exquisite effect.  Having said since high school that I felt like I was made of grief, I resonated intensely with the soul keening through that voice.  But the man remained a mystery, remains a mystery.  Even after I read his obituary in The Guardian, I knew little more than I always had. I did learn that he was exactly ten years and one day older than me; our birthdays were one day apart.

The gifts of his passing for me were 1) to connect (through the ethers) to all those others who had connected to this noble soul through his music, and 2) to observe how, as I note in my Mary Oliver “tribute” poem, news I need to know seems to find me, and I must trust that. What’s more, I can greet whatever in life finds me, whether I seek it or not, as purposeful and timely, even if its meaning might seem as obscure as Mark Hollis.

If you are not familiar and wish to experience his music, it’s all over the internet. From the solid synth pop of the Talk Talk and It’s My Life albums, to the rich deepening of Color of Spring, to the remarkable, groundbreaking Spirit of Eden and the almost abstruse Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis albums.  It is hard to isolate songs to recommend. I will say that my father was even captivated by the song “I Believe in You,” from Spirit of Eden. Pure pathos…and pulchritude. It is to be experienced, not described.

Thank you Mark Hollis.

Rest In Beauty.

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