Douglas Oliver on Kindness

On this very cold Saturday morning in Albany, as death continues to rain on / reign over Gaza, I am correcting the proofs of a book of essays, Justifying the Margins, to be published in April by SALT Publishing in Cambridge, UK. And in an homage piece for the English poet Douglas Oliver I come across the following reflections on “kindness,” ending on another, earlier war in the same region. Plus ça change

Paris, July 12, 2006—Driving south today, all the way to the Pyrenees. Oliver’s books are with me, but not sure when I’ll get back to them. As Paris disappears in back of me, Doug stays with me. Again I cannot separate the man from his work, and the best way I have to speak of them is to say that core to both is a practice of ethics that with great courage, integrity, and lucidity refuses all (either old-fashioned conservative humanistic or new-fangled modish hip) strategies and solutions. This means, for both the politics of his poetics and the poetics of his politics, a continual self-scrutiny and an assiduous involvement in and analysis of the world around him. As he wrote in Whisper “Louise,” “It will be seen eventually that this whole memoir, with its talk of communes and revolutions, will be about integrity, that is political, philosophical, social,poetic, and spiritual integrity, for they are all intertwined, and all will have to incorporate a vivid sense of what our own death will mean to our ideals—how rich a story it makes.” How rich indeed! He entitled an early novel The Harmless Building, and a Selected Poems Kind: these are core concepts with which he queried his actions and the world. The aim is to remain kind despite the anger and frustration that drives one’s desire to change the harmful aspects of this world. How to effect radical yet harmless change. This is not easy, for even kindness is unnatural, as Oliver meditates on the matter in the poem “For Kind”:

Kindness acts idly or unnaturally,
leads us into fear. Act in kindness.
Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.
Don’t be afraid of the darkness of kind;
for it’s the birth darkness, vertical twist
of opening lips in the night: life that follows
belongs to you in kind.

Doug had a helping angel (terrible as all angels are) that he returns to again and again: his Down syndrome son Tom, dead at two in a crib accident. And who comes back, or is present in his last book as a deer spirit, gentle animal, incarnation of kindness and harmlessness. From it emanates what in Whisper “Louise” he calls “the tea-brown light of kindness.” A halo I feel suffusing the poems and the man I knew, a light of dawn or dusk, not of the high-noon sun of Cartesian false-clarity or revolutionary absoluteness.

Luchon, July 18, 2006—Bombs tear apart Beirut and the Gaza strip. Harmless civilians killed by the hundreds. Another Mid-East war in progress. As if this species was incapable of kindness, caught in an unending spiral of harm upon harm inflicted on its own kind. I feel like screaming under this harsh and scorching sun. I miss the kindness of Doug Oliver’s presence; my world is darker now, sadder—but the books, the books, the poems and the prose Doug wrote is there for all to see and read. Do so.

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