I absolutely wasn’t planning on posting again so soon, but then Mary Oliver died and I had a lot of feelings about it and so here I am anyway, with some thoughts, and at the bottom, a poem in tribute.
Mary Oliver has always been one of my favorite poets, if not my very favorite, and so losing her voice is a profound personal loss. That being said, there are few poets who talked as eloquently about life and death, and their existential meaning, as Mary Oliver. So it is a bittersweet goodbye–I wish we hadn’t lost her, but so things go. She taught me that. Life and death exist in tandem, and the purpose of life is to exist, as best we can, to make the death that inevitably comes at the end of it an adventure, not something to be feared. As she writes in “when death comes”:
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 later in the same poem:
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.
Her words taught me a lot about peace, and joy, and how life should be lived, and over the years I have gone to them often when searching for a path towards internal peace in times of stress or strife. In particular, her poem “Wild Geese” has often been a guide to me (and many other people I know):
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.
Her poem the summer day (sampled in part here) is another one I’ve always found to be a guide:
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?
And so here’s a tribute to her the best way I know how, in words, in a poem, not about her exactly, but about what she’s taught me. Not nearly as beautiful as anything she’s written, of course, but written in honor of her memory anyway.
Ode to Mary Oliver
The sky is wider than you can ever know.
And if you are lucky the day is just as wide.
The kind of slow butter-yellow infinity
Slid inexplicably into a matter of hours,
Lying in the grass perhaps, silent,
Listening to bird-song with your eyes open.
Those who say it is impossible to live forever
Will never live forever. They will live
Inside the still amber of minutes, hours, days,
Oblivious to the soft and honest truth of things:
Every dawn brings the possibility of a new surrender,
And every new surrender the possibility of another dawn.
And so it goes. There is no eternity unless we make it.
All things eventually vanish; but between now and then there is time.
As much time as we allow ourselves to accept. Breathe in;
Breathe out. The sky is wider than you can ever know.
Here in the deep grass, looking upwards, you can see the starlings
Murmur across the sky. Murmuring, if you listen, your name.