I didn’t realize how much I have been leaning on Mary Oliver and her work the last two years until I read that she had died. The news struck me – the way hearing an old friend has died always does – swift and hard. A front kick to the chest.
I did what we all do when we hear of of a death – I felt sad. For her, sure. For the people who knew and loved her, of course. But also, selfishly, for me. Because I wanted more. More of her thoughts. More of her poems. More of, well, all of it. All that she’s learned. All that she’s seen. All that she’s willing to share.
What I really wanted was another book that I could read in the early morning hours before the cats and the husband and the sun showed up. Another book to keep me company and to remind me to keep living my “one wild and precious life” as best as I can.
Isn’t that what we all want?
Someone close to me has been reckoning with immortality lately and asked me my advice. As if I have any. I’m not religious. Not philosophical. Not particularly deep or wise or even all that opinionated. But I offered what I could. I offered poetry. “Poets seem to be closer to it than the rest of us,” I said. And the poet I was most thinking about when I offered this “cure” was Mary Oliver.
She’s helped me better see a world I recognize, and to appreciate what I love about it – the land, the animals, the quiet, the joy, and the heartbreak. I thought that she might help him. I hope that she does.
In her piece in The New Yorker, Stephanie Burt writes: “Oliver’s decades of litanies and rediscoveries provided so many readers with what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living,” tools to fight gloom, to open the front door, to lead wilder or more precious lives.”
I know she did this for me.
Thank you for the tools, Mary, and the message. You will be missed.
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.