Ode to Mary Oliver
The convivial poet, walker, and lover of the world, Mary Oliver died yesterday at her home at the age of 83. Born in Ohio, she lived much of her life in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the tip of Cape Cod, she spent the final years of her life in Florida after the loss of her long-time partner Molly Malone Cook.
There is a lot of biographical information that could be shared about this beautiful human, but in her own words, “description without feeling in only a report.” So I’ll let you read about the details of her life from another source, and offer you a feeling instead (I’ll share a few links at the end to read more about her)
I was in my studio in Brooklyn, cloudy outside, covered in sawdust, when I saw a post from a friend sharing the news. I was holding a tape measure in my right hand and felt the weight of it slump down to my thigh. I think I held my breath as I read, I’m not sure, but my body felt weak.
Mary Oliver has unashamedly been my imagination’s poet laureate. Few have dug their roots deeper into my mind, and even more so, my heart. I felt with her as she craved landscape and communion with nature; noting the passing of a heron or the arrival of a deer above her as she slept in a thicket somewhere. She has been seminal in the formation of my identity and as I stood in my studio, I audibly wept. I was surprised by my bodies own voluntary reaction to the passing of this woman I never met person to person. But in her poems, I felt known and illuminated as she asked questions about nature and spirit and God and self. I was curious and felt alive by what she saw and it inspired me to go see and love the world for myself.
I knew she was important to me, but upon hearing that she died, I realized with a new clarity how much she actually means. I’m so grateful to have shared the beautiful Earth with her at the same time; lucky to learn from her attentive and trusted eyes. I gleaned wisdom from her as she gave life to places too often stripped of their animacy. I suppose I’m also grateful that I found her words so young, and that I can continue to explore them for however long I live in my own body, able and willing to notice the shifting of leaves and creatures in a world that is fully alive.
Many serious poetry readers and ciritics didn’t take her or her poems seriously, “perhaps because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God,” said Ruth Franklin in the November issue of The New Yorker. But lucky for us, she did not write for them. And truth be told, I don’t know if she wrote for us, (or more specifically me) either. She wrote them for herself, I believe, out of a loyalty to mystery.
It’s funny though isn’t it… how a person we’ve never met, so private, who spent most of their time alone, walking along the shore or in the woods, doing what so many people feel is a waste of time, writing little notes to herself as she went, can somehow stir the hearts of so many people. Maybe it was her authentic love and appreciation for what she found, or maybe it was her use of language that wasn’t pretentious. Or maybe it was that by slowing down and attempting to truly see what was around her, she tapped into something that so many of us yearn for - a deeper understanding of that “silky thing” we call the soul.
Here’s one of my favorites. It’s the first poem from her book, House of Light:
Some Questions You Might Ask
Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?
In her honor and her memory I took a walk through the snow in Prospect Park this morning; looking closely at the red-headed woodpecker high in the sugar gum tree, at the dogs running shaking and scratching in the field, and at the mushrooms growing from the sides of stumps. I stopped often and let the world catch up to me, and I prayed. I said thank you. And I walked. Thank you Mary, wherever you are.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
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.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”
- Mary Oliver
Here’s an extended reading / listening list: