When poet Mary Oliver died a couple of weeks ago, I suspect many readers responded much like I did: “Oh no!”
That’s an almost universal response when anyone we know well dies suddenly—and we are both surprised and crestfallen. If the deceased is just an acquaintance or a public figure whom we don’t know personally, our response tends to be more muted: “Gosh, that’s too bad.”
But Mary Oliver? “Oh, no!!”
Part of this, for those familiar with her work, has to do with the sheer fact that writers whom we enjoy and tend to go back to enter our brains and our consciousness and take up residence there like the very best virus. That rare kind that actually improves our health rather than decimates it.
These writers become like lifelong friends, with whom we carry on a dialogue of sorts. It’s a peculiar form of intimacy: the writer speaks—or the singer sings, or the actor acts—and we develop a sort of virtual relationship with them.
It’s emotional, often intense, and enriching of our lives, no doubt about it. This despite the fact that it’s not a “real” relationship in the flesh-and-blood sense, so it remains idealized.
All of this phenomenon of a felt intimacy with writers is probably quadrupled in the case of Mary Oliver, I think. Why is this?
Two main reasons, it seems to me.
One is her subject matter: an unreservedly worshipful, intense, sustained attention to—and love of—the natural world.
If we are prone to going weak in the knees when tending to blooming flowers in the spring, dying leaves in autumn, and wild geese flying across the sky, then are the people we love in our lives any less worthy of that sustained, deeply appreciative, and even rhapsodic attention?
For Mary Oliver, nature and all the things in it, add up to a kind of God without all the messy business of a personal creator. No father up in the sky, blessing some people with riches and good health with his left hand while dooming others with his right.
Oliver skirts all that ponderous and frightful theology by gazing deeply, intently, rapturously, seriously, into the mystery of clouds, the reality of decay, the antics of frogs and dogs, and the profound, beautiful stillness of ponds.
She says what she means, in gorgeous but not dense language, mostly in free verse devoid of the constraints of formal structure. The second reason Oliver’s death feels like we’ve lost a good friend is, I think, due to her transparency.
Unlike many poets, Oliver doesn’t make us work hard just to get through a thicket of arcane literary references or foreign language phrases or vague symbols with countless possible interpretations.
What is paramount for Oliver is to give her full attention to what she beholds. Then she expresses it in everyday English, in a way that she herself insisted in an interview, “mustn’t be fancy.”
Make no mistake, she can talk “spondees” and iambic tetrameter and pentameter, semi-vowels, mutes and enjambment, with the most straitjacketed academic poets.
She once wrote a whole volume on the subject called “A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry.” I’ve learned a lot from it over the years, even as the technical discussion sometimes makes my head hurt.
So she can do all that formal business, and she sometimes makes use of it unbeknownst to us. But of far greater importance for her is having people actually read and understand and take joy and inspiration from her poetry. This is a rather novel concept among many poets—I’m hoping it catches on!
And now on to the poetry, with the first five lines of her much anthologized, deservedly famous poem, “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
How’s that for a lovely but devastating rebuke to all religions and dogmas of retribution, atonement, harsh judgment, and a million rules? There’s no room in those lines for fanciful tales of gold tablets, hovering angels, heavenly choirs, and creatures with horns worshipping evil and trying to get you to do the same.
Bosh on all that, Mary Oliver says! There is nothing to repent, no original sins to be paid off by you or some savior acting in your stead.
You don’t need any of that—all you need to claim your true freedom is to indulge in your “soft animal body,” oh, yessss!
It knows what brings it joy and delight, that good and worthy and luxurious body of yours, that vehicle by which you can pour out your love for the world and receive it in return.
This is poetry—and theology—of intense sensuality and incarnation. It declares the world as good and whole and enough in itself, worthy of our veneration and regard.
Sometimes this is mistaken for starry-eyed worship of the beautiful that looks past the carnage and predation that nature also exhibits in about equal measure. But tell that to “The Fish” in the poem of that very name, which Oliver caught and wrote about with these lines:
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish; the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea.
Oliver included “The Fish” in her Pulitzer Prize-winning sixth volume in 1983, entitled “American Primitive.” In it, she writes of lightning, “each bolt a burning river,” of stillborn one-eyed cats, of “appalling” skunk cabbage and its “lurid” smell. She abides that smell because:
…these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again—a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
In “The Lost Children,” she writes of parents’ grief over their abducted daughter, and of the father out searching:
…climbing up and down the hillsides,
the edges of swamps, the desolations of the old
forest that ticked and spoke
in the thrush’s gorgeous and amoral voice…
Let’s consider that last line for a moment: the thrush’s gorgeous and amoral voice…
We see here that Oliver, for all her love of the natural world, makes no judgments about it. She doesn’t claim that all is light and beauty and goodness, with all pain and suffering transmuted to some higher purpose. Things just are, and they act in ways true to their own nature that commands them.
The thrush sings beautifully, but seconds later it can be ending a worm’s or a beetle’s life—sliding them down its gullet even as a snake then bears down on the thrush ready to strike and then stuff it into its gaping jaws. None of these scenes, common as dirt, are bad or immoral.
Oliver describes nature as amoral, and I presume that’s because human morality—making judgments and pondering ethics and drawing distinctions on a values basis between one course of action and another—doesn’t fit into the equation of the natural world. It’s almost as if humans are something beyond nature, even as we marvel at, admire, photograph, paint, write and talk ceaselessly about it as one of the great joys of our lives.
The fact is that poems like “The Lost Children” and “University Hospital, Boston,” in which she visits an ill, possibly dying friend, are the exception rather than the rule in Oliver’s work.
Besides being the first-person narrator in most of her poems, Oliver doesn’t really write much about other people. Someone has surely done—or should do—a study on the percentage of her poems that cite people rather than birds and mammals and flowers and streams. I’m sure it’s a very minute ratio.
Heck, she wrote an entire volume on dogs just five years ago—35 poems and one essay about dogs named Luke, Henry, Benjamin, Percy, Ricky—all human names but decidedly not human subjects. I think there’s virtually no chance there are 36 pieces about people in her entire poetic output.
Just pick up a volume and browse the Table of Contents, as I did the other day with “American Primitive.” These words pop out: Swamp, Pond, Roses, Blackberries, Bluefish, Tree, Trees, Woods, Pinewoods, River, Fall, Bobcat, Kitten, Mushrooms, Snow, Lightning, Rain. That basic subject matter dominates every volume Mary Oliver ever wrote.
And in that subhuman world, she doesn’t see its deadliness, the fact that everything withers, erodes or dies, often amidst great suffering and violence, as something tragic or evil. It just is, a natural, incontrovertible fact. One neither argues with it, nor looks away.
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” she asks in her now quite immortalized lines from “The Summer Day.” Then she finishes it with: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”
So: no turning away from death. One simply observes, notes, grieves. Because it is only through attention and acceptance that we come to appreciate death’s true task, which is its completion of nature’s cycle, like the vultures in her poem who “sweep over/ the glades looking/for death/to eat it, to make it vanish,/to make of it the miracle:/resurrection…”
Oliver doesn’t merely refuse to look away from the spectacle of vultures going about their business; she is drawn to sit on a nearby hillside in complete stillness and watch rapturously as these scenes of life’s starkest, baseline profundities play out for an audience of one.
When she contemplates her own demise in “When Death Comes,” she writes these ever-so-telling lines that can be seen as a kind of capstone of everything she tried to do as a poet, as a witness to the beautiful and the sublime, the awesome and the terrifying. Everything except for the indifferent.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
I would dare say here that being “married to amazement” is no walk in the park. We don’t know what Oliver was like in her everyday life, her domestic relations. Her moods when she was sweeping her kitchen or sick with the flu, or taking her car in for an oil change, then going to pay for it and having her credit card unaccountably rejected multiple times.
What we know is what she chose to focus on: those thousands of walks she took in the woods, the animals and clouds and trees she espied there, the dead fox she curled up in the tractor tire with on the hill as she beheld the world below.
They were not always dramatic images or scenes themselves, though. But with careful, loving attention, all images and scenes reveal their deeper layers. It’s like driving through the desert for years and thinking it an utter lifeless wasteland.
And then one day you go off road, get out of your car, hoist up your backpack and tent, and off you go trekking the arid landscape—and an entire alternate universe of complexity and teeming life begins to reveal itself to you.
The whole world and everything in it is like that, Oliver tells us.
For her, this heading off road, away from our numbness and distractions and inattention, where one can truly attend, is not like prayer—it is prayer itself, telling us everything we need to know.
Again, “The Summer Day”: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is./I do know how to pay attention.”
But here, too, is one of the challenges her work imposes. If love, true love of this world and all the things in it, is hugely a matter of paying attention, and if we are prone to going weak in the knees when tending to blooming flowers in the spring, dying leaves in autumn, and wild geese flying across the sky, then are the people we love in our lives any less worthy of that sustained, deeply appreciative, and even rhapsodic attention?
Is that kind of attention even possible in this life with our family or intimate friends we’ve known or lived with for 25 or 50 years?
Can we marvel at people with the same fervor and appreciation as we do sunsets and mountains, whales and ant colonies, herons and roses?
If not, maybe we should ask a few questions of ourselves. Perhaps the answer is as easy as roses never talking back or sunsets occurring on schedule, every day, consistent like no human being ever was.
But let’s face it, no human being can walk around besotted all their lives, either with people or trees. Peak experiences are wonderful, but our nervous systems and minds are not designed to function in that state all our waking hours.
And I doubt Mary Oliver did either. We’d all starve if we did, because all of us have to tend to sober, focused work for part of our lives. And someone has to grow and prepare food and purify water and pave roads and deal with literary agents and all those other mundane activities of life rather than just rhapsodizing on the miracle of it all.
But—and this is an important “BUT”—attention, devotion, gratitude, continuing curiosity, presence of mind—all these are “muscles,” after a fashion, and Mary Oliver showed us we can build and sustain them over a long period of time—without ever getting near a weight room!
All they require is the practiced gaze, the appreciative stare, the open heart, the simple—but not easy—commitment to attend fully to what is in front of us. In her poem, “Mindful,” she says she was “born…to instruct myself/over and over/in joy/and acclamation.” Building that muscle!
From, “Am I Not Among the Early Risers”:
Here is an amazement—once I was twenty years old and in
every motion of my body there was a delicious ease,
and in every motion of the green earth there was
a hint of paradise,
and now I am sixty years old, and it is the same.
This is everyday, sustained ecstasy, drinkless drunkenness, a deep and abiding—if quieter—appreciation of just how wondrous the world is and how fortunate we are to be alive and taking it in.
In “Egrets,” she writes about three of them as “a shower of white fire,/Even half asleep they had such faith in the world that had made them.”
For Oliver, that “faith” is not about belief, but about habitation. Inhabiting our body, our mind, our heart, the leafing tree and the skittering bird and the rush of water and the morning dew weighing down the spider’s web.
And maybe, just maybe, though she doesn’t mention it much, the way our child or spouse or friend scrunches their lip or lifts their gaze in a certain way when they have something important to say—and it’s something we’ve noted for decades and continue to delight in.
Looking with our hearts and eyes wide open—and thus seeing—is the ultimate message of Mary Oliver’s life and work.
“Nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,” she says, in the poem “Terns,”
“Than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.”
Plenty of irony in this song title, given the whole lotta something that the Kruger Brothers make out of “Beautiful Nothing.”
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Spider web by Julie Falk, Southern Michigan https://www.flickr.com/photos/piper/
Sunset and tree photos by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Vulture by Patrick Shannon https://www.flickr.com/photos/patrick_s/