Mary Oliver’s Miniature House

photo by Claude Piche at Unsplash

In her book of essays, Upstream, the poet Mary Oliver describes the desire to be immersed in nature—putting her face into “the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong,” she writes, “if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.”

Oliver goes on to explore the treasures of that house. “Whatever a house is to the heart and body of man—refuge, comfort, luxury—surely it is as much or more to the spirit. Think how often our dreams take place in the houses of our imaginations?”

She considers what these houses might be like. “If you rise refreshed from a dream — a night’s settlement inside some house that has filled you with pleasure — you are doing okay. If you wake to the memory of squeezing confinement, rooms without air or light, a door difficult or impossible to open, a troubling disorganization, or even wreckage  inside, you are in trouble — with yourself. There are ‘Dream’ houses that pin themselves up on the windy porches of mountains, that open their own windows and summon in flocks of wild and colorful birds — and there are houses that hunker upon narrow ice floes adrift upon endless, dark waters; houses that break, houses that sing; houses that will say nothing at all to you though you beg and plead all night for some answer to your vexing questions.

How do you make a dream house?

Oliver describes people who actually built their dream houses — places that served as sanctuaries for the soul. C.G. Jung moved the stones into place for his house on a lake in Bollingen, three hours north from his psychiatric practice in Zurich. Thoreau crafted his one-room, wood framed cottage on Walden Pond, just up the hill from a quiet cove.

About 40 years ago, Oliver set out to build a miniature house — “a one-room affair set in the ivies and vincas” of her backyard in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

In the 1980s, she recalls, there was a construction boom and there were treasures to be found a local building sites (unused or surplus materials) and at the town dump. Oliver finds “good wood — useful wood — wood it was a sin to bury, not to use again, pine fir, oak flooring, shingles of red and white cedar, ply, cherry trim, also tar paper and insulation, screen doors new and old…This is where I went for my materials along with others, men and women both, who simply roved, attentively, through all the mess until they found what they needed, or felt they would, someday, use. Clothes, furniture, old dolls, old high chairs, bikes; once a child’s metal bank in the shape of a dog, very old. Once a set of copper-bottomed cookware still in its original cartons. Once a bag of old Christmas cards swept from the house of a man who had died only a month or so earlier, in almost every one of them a dollar bill.”

Here she found everything she needed, including nails. The only thing she lacked — chiefly because she didn’t have the patience to wait for one to show up—was a ridge beam. This she found at a local lumber company, bringing her total expenditure for the house to $3.58. The end result was a patchwork of reused objects put together with care and balance, using both the bright and dark, the familiar and the unexpected—very much like a poem. Here’s how she describes the craft of building:
Patching everything together with nails, spikes and screws, “I was involved, frustrated, devoted, resolved, nicked and scraped and delighted…. I was playing. I was whimsical, absorbed, happy.”

A house is like a poem

All this physical labor complements the life of the mind, the hours of quiet observation, the days spent steeped in metaphor and language. The house grows directly out of Oliver’s creative process and is instilled with the same sense of commitment, grit and wide-eyed wonder that characterize her verse.

When the tiny house is finished, the poet Stanley Kunitz donates a yellow front door. On the wall, Oliver puts a van Gogh landscape, a Blake poem, a photograph of Mahler, a picture in colored chalk. Birds nests she has collected on her walks are artfully arranged in the corners of the room.

She ends her project with this thought, which also is a kind of benediction, “Let me always be who I am and then some.”
Did she use the house? For awhile, to write some poems. But it wasn’t supposed to be an office, or a hideaway.
“I built it to build it—stepped over the threshold and was gone.”

Also recommended:

Upstream  Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

DreamWork  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Many Miles: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver

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