For Mary Oliver with Gratitude

Here I sat… in the days and nights following the news of poet Mary Oliver’s death, feeling that there is no one in my world (alive) with whom I can speak of this loss.  But along comes an email from a soul-companion and deeply connected traveler on the way. My niece, Katya, who is one embodiment of her beloved uncle’s poetic longing writes to say that I am not in the least alone with this. That Mary Oliver means much to her, too. She reminds me that she first heard Mary Oliver in Philip’s recitation of the poem, “Wild Geese.” The poem he chose to speak to her during a painful and pivotal time in her life. In fact, she says and continues to say, that poem changed my life.

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.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Knowing that the poet’s voice will sing no more, her spoken words no longer point and prod and remind is a loss that feeds the dark wolf that prowls outside my heart’s door these days. But knowing that the poet leaves her words behind and that her words reconnect me with Philip and Katya and my heart has me just the slightest bit less bereft tonight.

Reading of Mary Oliver’s death on Thursday, January 17, I immediately went in search of my favorite poem, “The Summer Day.” I hadn’t read it in a while and had forgotten what precedes the final compelling lines – the lines I’ve loved since Philip first read them to me long ago.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Those lines that Philip often quoted to remind us of what we are here for… are at the end of a poem that whimsically evokes a delightful, funny, sweet, and sensitive communion with a grasshopper. To see poetry in a grasshopper is oddly comparable to seeing eternity in Blake’s sunrise. To find joy in the tiniest of creatures invites me to reconnect with my one wild and precious life. To spend an evening in the presence of Mary Oliver’s poetry and prose chases the wolf from the door, lights the fire in the hearth, brings back light and love and warmth.

The death of this favorite poet and the death of (my favorite) mother — both in these last 2 months bring back … yet again, the questions that seem to arise with grief: what matters? what touches my heart? what opens me to love? what makes life beautiful? Carrying on is what we’re expected to do, what we expect ourselves to do. But there must be meaning. And there must be love. This return to Mary Oliver’s poems helps tonight. Re-learning to notice; pausing to see the smile on a face; stopping to be gratefully enlarged by winter sunlight gleaming across frozen water. The minute particulars that open into worlds of wonder and tenderness. There is so much to admire, to weep over, says Oliver in her poem “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac.”

So, tonight, I am grateful to Katya for thinking to get in touch. To Philip who introduced me to this poet, who sang life into poetry and poetry into my life. And, of course, to Mary Oliver for all the wonder and tender regard she brings to my heart and the world.

Love and deep appreciation are winging out to every poet’s heart between and beyond the worlds tonight … and always.

“The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

16 thoughts on “For Mary Oliver with Gratitude

  1. I love this post about Mary Oliver. It’s a beautiful reflection on a poet who has spoken to me often and whose death I mourn along with the author. — Margot

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  2. Needless to say, your words, like Mary Oliver’s to you, touch my heart deeply. Thank you for sharing here and reminding me to listen to the inside voice as much as anything.❤️

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  3. Oh my dearest Joan,

    My cup runneth over…with love, with gratitude. Your words and spirit touch me so deeply. You are indeed my soul companion ❤️ and I am humbled and honored.

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    1. Aren’t we SO fortunate that Fate has brought us together! (My apologies: I meant to write ahead and tell you I’d mentioned you in a post, but I got caught up/bogged down in the technical piece of getting it out — something I could not do without the generous assistance of another precious niece — who, I think you’d connect with as much as I do.) I love you.

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  4. What a beautiful post, Joan—it really touched me. I love Mary Oliver as well, and have been reacquainting myself with some of my favorite poems of hers. Here’s one:

    The Journey

    One day you finally knew
    what you had to do, and began,
    though the voices around you
    kept shouting
    their bad advice–
    though the whole house
    began to tremble
    and you felt the old tug
    at your ankles.
    “Mend my life!”
    each voice cried.
    But you didn’t stop.
    You knew what you had to do,
    though the wind pried
    with its stiff fingers
    at the very foundations,
    though their melancholy
    was terrible.
    It was already late
    enough, and a wild night,
    and the road full of fallen
    branches and stones.
    But little by little,
    as you left their voices behind,
    the stars began to burn
    through the sheets of clouds,
    and there was a new voice
    which you slowly
    recognized as your own,
    that kept you company
    as you strode deeper and deeper
    into the world,
    determined to do
    the only thing you could do–
    determined to save
    the only life you could save.

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    1. Oh, Molly. This is the very first poem of Mary Oliver’s Philip read to me. In fact, I think I initially wanted to include it in the memoir. It carries a message of so much courage and encouragement … to ‘recognize our own voices,’ to ‘save our own precious lives.’ Thanks so much for bringing it back to me and posting it here. Love.

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  5. Reading the comments of the friends who read this post, I am awed and inspired by the rippling out of heart-touching that poetry and poets initiate. Mary Oliver has touched so many, many souls. I am honored if I have extended her reach by even a fraction. Here’s to Loving and Being … And to my love for you.

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  6. It seems I get introduced to a lot of inspiring artists the day after they die. It’s usually through an obituary in print or on NPR. Add Mary Oliver to the list. I appreciate you sharing these poems that you and Philip favored, and the one Molly shares in these comments. Of course I’m thinking where has this writer been all my life because what I get from Oliver’s work is a reminder seize the day not so much with a carpe diem gusto but instead with an appreciative present focus. I want to accomplish things, get somewhere, and make my mark, but right now I just need to know “how to pay attention.” It occurred to me, reading Oliver’s encounter with the grasshopper, that there was a time when I had that present focus and appreciation — during childhood when I could spend hours watching various beetles navigate cracks in the sidewalk or scrutinize the unique designs of snowflakes. That’s a beautiful tribute to Mary Oliver. Thanks for posting it Joan.

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    1. Maintaining child-like presence along with adult perception and sensitivity, allowing the wonder of the natural world to deepen our experience of life in the world … that is surely a gift. Thank you, Liam.

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  7. The Journey is my favorite poem of hers. It hangs on my wall and will forever inspire me to focus on what matters most. Thank you for sharing this tribute. Love and hugs.

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    1. Yes, The Journey is a wonderful reminder and encouragement. The poet will be missed. Her inspiration lives on in her poetry. Thank you for your response. Love and hugs back to you.

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