after Wild Geese*
you don’t have to be good
is that none of us is meant
to walk on our knees
or to be denied
that brushes in feathers
on our upturned faces
like the geese, moving with
crossing the mountains
that divide us
and each lonely desert
that we did not share
the old wild song
each soft, animal body
as its own.
* ”Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver
Words have the power to change our lives.
In her book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, author, producer and public speaker Austin Channing Brown describes how reading a poem (“We Wear the Mask,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar) changed her perspective of herself, her choices, and her place in the world.
Brown’s eye-opening, insightful book has done the same for me. In an interview with Layla Saad (link below), Brown explained that her intended audience was other Black people, rather than folks like me; however, I am grateful to have read her work. Glimpsing the world through her eyes, page after page, acted less for me like a borrowed pair of glasses, and more like a mirror.
As I looked in that mirror, Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” ran like a refrain through my mind. It took time before I realized why: Oliver’s poem has served for me much like Dunbar’s did for Brown. My life is divided into before I read “Wild Geese,” and after “Wild Geese.” The moment between the two was both uncomfortable and tender. In it I was shown how I can shape myself to “be good,” or choose to repent and withdraw for reasons that are not my own, all in the name of safety and belonging.
While Brown’s perspective is uniquely Black and as a result, different from mine, I recognized that her term for this, called code-switching, is one I can relate to. Perhaps every human can.
Regardless of whom Brown wrote for, or what Oliver held in mind when she wrote “Wild Geese,” the offering for me is the same: You have a birthright, granted to every living being: you belong to the life in this soft, animal body. For whom are you living it?
Austin Channing Brown
“We Wear the Mask,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Interview between Layla Saad and Austin Channing Brown
Mary Oliver reading “Wild Geese”