It is reported that the poet Mary Oliver is seriously ill and has canceled all her appearances. The heralds of this sorry news have urged people to share via social media something about what the poems and the poet have meant to them. That sounds like code for “mortal” or “fatal” or “terminal”—why do all the ending words rhyme?
Rather than scribble unoriginal comments on a laundry line of the same thoughts over and over, better to read the quiet and the dazzling poems. New and Selected Poems (volume 1) holds bears, egrets, snows, swamps, winters and springs from 1963 through 1992. Oliver has her fervent fans—devoted to the holy gospel to be read in the pulpy guts of a freshly filleted fish and the epiphanies to be found in a host of pond lilies. She has her dismissive detractors—high-minded lovers of the lofty and the abstruse who might never have broken apart an owl pellet to let its history spill out in their hand or dared to offer a drift of sugar to a grasshopper. I’m in it for the epiphanies.
“Nature poems” sounds like the artifacts of a pastime for ladies of leisure who pen couplets in gardens. But poems rooted in nature can be muddy shards of a rough world that remind us where we come from and how we should live in this world. Oliver insists on this disorderly encounter with reality as a means of remembering what is authentic, of being mindful. In “Rice” she writes:
I don’t want you just to sit down at the table.
I don’t want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.
Of course, my favorite is the well-known “The Summer Day” with its heart-stopping last lines:
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, while you ponder your answer to that, contemplate the final stanzas of “When Death Comes” which is as much a game plan as a reflection:
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 the world.
Dig into some Mary Oliver. And then get out of the house and turn your face to the wind or step out of your shoes and walk barefoot on the ground. Feast your eyes on a garden slug or a breaching whale and be as deliberate as that slug or as exhilarated as that whale. Wear some crumbs of rich dark dirt or a scatter of salt spray. Reconnect to the physical creature that you are to rediscover your soul.
New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1 Mary Oliver | Beacon Press 1992