polestar now illuminates the heavens: mary oliver (1935-2019)
Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world, drew a wide following while dividing critics, died on Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She was 83.
so begins the New York Times obituary for Mary O, polestar of poetry as prayer for some of us, for many of us. for me, most certainly.
as with most every death that shakes you at the marrow, my first response was cloudy, was confused. why, out of the blue yesterday, was a dear friend sending me lines from Mary O poems in the middle of an ordinary afternoon? then i looked again, closely, at the subject line and saw the dates spanned by hyphen, 1935 – 2019, our vernacular shorthand for “death has come.” it sank in slowly, as if my brain cells refused to register.
it’s not everyday that a death in the news so dizzies me, jerks me into momentary disbelief before settling with a thud, one that opens into sorrow. but mary O had long ago burrowed deep inside my soul; i’d made a whole room for her in wherever is that place that holds our heaven-sent synapses and soarings.
mary O had the gift of belonging to each and every one of us who read her, who memorized her lines, who traced our fingertips across the page, all but absorbing the unspoken, the shimmering sacred, she infused between the words, the images. to read a mary oliver poem is, often, to feel “the telltale tingle of the spine,” as nabokov so unforgettably put it. it’s as much what mary oliver doesn’t say, the unspoken, that catapults off the page, that reverberates, that catches in your chest, your throat, your mind, and lies there pulsing while you absorb the holy inference, the Truth.
mary oliver takes us by the hand, and down the trodden path into the woods, along the marsh, the tide pool, the ocean’s noisy shore. we sit beside her on the sodden log. keep watch with her as she keeps watch on the box turtle slithering into the pond. we hear the cry of the owl, the heron, the kingfisher, the red bird, the stirring in the trees. we are right beside her, footsteps behind her, always, when we enter into her poetry.
she was for me — and maybe for you, too — my polestar of prayerful poetry, the poetry of astonishment, the poetry of the Book of Nature. she was my doorway into all those poets — w.s. merwin, david whyte, wendell berry, terry tempest williams (i’ll think of more) — whose critical attention teaches us to see the divine — feel the divine, know the divine — in the stirrings of the earth and sky, those poets who remind us that the holy is all around, and it’s ours to enter any time. all it asks is that we open — even just a crack — the doorways of our soul.
mary O opened those doorways every time.
i met her once. sat in the same room, breathed the same air. shared words, shared silence. listened. laughed. it was heavenly, but i’d dreamed of more. had hoped to trek to cape cod when she was there, and i was in cambridge. hoped to comb the beach with her. walk the woods. then, when she up and moved to florida, i rearranged my dreams. imagined sending her a letter, asking if perhaps she’d meet with one of her disciples. i fully imagined sitting beside her on that log, listening, absorbing. learning.
she was, though, famously, intensely private. and it’s that thin-shelled soul, the porous, almost fragile cell wall of self that i recognize. that i honor with my distance. i’d not dare disturb.
i did though send her a letter. i had to once. i wanted to begin my first book, slowing time, with a mary oliver epigraph, her poem “praying;” these lines especially…
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
so i wrote her, asked if i could please have permission. her assistant wrote me back. but the letter came from mary O’s writing place, and that was close enough for me. (that and a letter from wendell berry are among the two treasures in the narrow drawer of my writing table.)
i never met her. but she knew me — or so it felt as her words slipped over me, put voice to my heart’s beat, my breath, my prayer, my hope, my faith. and that’s what made her my patron saint of poetry. delicate as the little bird she spoon feeds up above, a close-up from the cover of her last collection, her life’s work, bound. 455 pages.
Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality.
so says the new york times, which goes on to say:
For her abiding communion with nature, Ms. Oliver was often compared to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. For her quiet, measured observations, and for her fiercely private personal mien (she gave many readings but few interviews, saying she wanted her work to speak for itself), she was likened to Emily Dickinson.
Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality, as in the work of the American Transcendentalists or English poets like William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
i say, simply, thank you, mary O. thank you, thank you, thank you.
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.
bless you, mary O. may astonishment be yours eternally.
what’s your holiest line or poem from mary oliver?
“She had the gift of belonging to each and every one of us.” I think that says it all. I felt like she was a friend speaking just to me whenever I picked up one of her poems. On a gray, hard day, she could lift my spirits. She made this world so much easier to live in. Now I’m going off to read “Dog Songs,” one of my favorites of hers.
my bookshelf is thick with mary O, and i am going to spend the weekend slowly traipsing through each and every one…..it seems perfectly anointed that later this afternoon the heavens will open and the snows will tumble down, and then we will all be blanketed in the holy silence of a winter’s retreat…..
a dear friend of mine, an episcopal priest, just wrote me to say of mary O:
“She is saint and prophet and abbess all in one.”
When NPR informed me that Mary Oliver had died, the world stopped turning for a moment. Suspended in disbelief, I looked around me, tried to envision my future without her latest dispatches from nature, tried to imagine my steps without the tender guideposts of her musings. I stopped breathing for several stunned seconds.
But then I realized that Mary, having crossed over from death into light, is closer to me now than ever before. Now, when I tell her how dearly I cherish her, I know that she knows… How wonderful is that?
Although news of her death came as a jolt, I don’t feel she has slipped away forever. I feel she has in fact stepped closer, and closer still…. We haven’t lost her at all. We have gained her, in all the dazzling radiance of her being, as a friend and loving companion for all eternity. xo
beautiful, beautiful……..you take my breath away. perhaps i should change the title here; i’d not been quite settled with it, and you make me think twice, and thrice. it seems there was a momentary holding of breath, ringing round the globe, as the news came in, and so many of us stopped breathing, lost in the shock of the news….
I love your title change. Mary Oliver is a Polaris indeed. Her radiance will never be extinguished. xo
xoxox change inspired by you. xoxo
Mary Oliver’s books are holy books. I turn to them time and again for wisdom and inspiration. Her poetry speaks to my soul. No better accolade can be given than that. I have several favorite quotes from her work including the lines from PRAYING which are included in your book. Here are some of the other ones:
only if there are angels in
your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.
and the ripeness
of the apple
is its downfall
You might see an angel anytime and anywhere. Of course you have to open your eyes to a kind of second level, but it’s not really hard.
Then I remember:
death comes before
the rolling away
of the stone.
oh, hh, i am sighing right along with you. brushing away the tears….we must bring our MO books with us to the woods.
OH NO! OH NO! OH NO!
oh, dear, it breaks my heart that you are just learning. i am so sorry….
Aunt Leaf – by Mary Oliver
Needing one, I invented her –
the great-great-aunt dark as hickory
called Shining-Leaf, or Drifting Cloud
Dear aunt, I’d call into the leaves,
and she’d rise up, like an old log in a pool,
and whisper in a language only the two of us knew
the word that meant follow,
and we’d travel
cheerful as birds
out of the dusty town and into the trees
where she would change us both into something quicker –
two foxes with black feet,
two snakes green as ribbons,
two shimmering fish –
and all day we’d travel.
At day’s end she’d leave me back at my own door
with the rest of my family,
who were kind, but solid as wood
and rarely wandered. While she,
old twist of feathers and birch bark,
would walk in circles wide as rain and then
scattering the rags of twilight
on fluttering moth wings;
or she’d slouch from the barn like a grey opossum;
or she’d hang in the milky moonlight
burning like a medallion,
this bone dream,
this friend I had to have,
this old woman made out of leaves.
This is my “less known” but favorite poem of hers. I will find her in moonlight and shadow forest and know she still belongs to us in her legacy of words. She taught us to pay attention. I am picturing her joined with her beloved Molly and pup. I am grateful to have had her as a companion
amen, beautiful lamcal…..i love the “less knowns.” i did not know this one…..
Barbara, I see you and Mary O as kindred spirits so it’s a good thing we have YOU to continue her paying attention and inviting us all in. One of my faves is “When I Am Among the Trees”. Today I say thank you to Mary O and to BAM!!!
“I would almost say that they save me, and daily.”
the power of a comma, placed perfectly — among other lessons in that one wallop of a line…..
That photo of the two of you as she signs your book. So precious. That’s how I felt at your first book sighting – in awe. It’s such a treasure to be at this table each week. I thought of you as soon as I heard and knew your heart was 💔. Such a loss, but so grateful her words live forever … as does she, just on a different plane. xoxoxoxo
given away by my trademark marimekko backpack!!! six-plus years since that night, and it still follows me where’re i go…..
the treasure is that you come to this table every week.
perhaps if we grow silent enough, we’ll hear whispers from on high, from where’re Mary O dwells now….
It was actually your hair that gave you away…
Amy iterated what my heart was sensing…. She is closer to us now than she
could ever manage, even through her mystical musings, while here among
us. Who would hold her back from such vast horizons and realizations of her
quests ? Everything she treasured here is magnified, even holier and fulfilling
there; the thirst sated at last. Just imagine the questions answered, the
doubts enlightened and the glory of her essence as now truly complete. Who
would stay her from that reward one moment?..all she embraced here is now
embracing her in a radiant light…whispers of which will shine on us when we
read her profound words and thank her for her wisdom…. Cherish your
re-reading this weekend, dear Bam.
beautiful, beautiful…….i was just thinking many of those thoughts, as i climbed out of a shower into a glorious dark and snowy dawn…..she slipped into the mystery. i am listening for signals. xoxox
if you, like me, live in a nook or cranny of the world that today is deep in fluffy white snow, and if perhaps you’ll looking for a few good reads, here is the 2017 profile of mary O from the New Yorker, with one bit of excerpt down below. just to whet your appetite.
New Yorker profile, “The Art of Paying Attention” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/27/what-mary-olivers-critics-dont-understand
“Part of the key to Oliver’s appeal is her accessibility: she writes blank verse in a conversational style, with no typographical gimmicks. But an equal part is that she offers her readers a spiritual release that they might not have realized they were looking for. Oliver is an ecstatic poet in the vein of her idols, who include Shelley, Keats, and Whitman. She tends to use nature as a springboard to the sacred, which is the beating heart of her work.”
listening to mary oliver on On Being right now, a re-visit of one of her rare interviews from a few years back, and in talking about the eternal cycle, and the perplexities of God in mary’s poetry, after krista quoted a line from “Long Life” — “What can we do about God, who makes and then breaks every god-forsaken, beautiful day?” — mary said we need to go back and read Lucretius. what does Lucretius say, asks krista. to which mary replies:
“Lucretius just presents this marvelous and important idea that what we are made of will make something else, which to me is very important.”
well, i’ll grab the transcript and let them tell you:
Ms. TIPPETT: ….for all the glorious language about God and around God that goes all the way through your poetry, you also acknowledge this perplexing thing. This was in Long Life: “What can we do about God, who makes and then breaks every god-forsaken, beautiful day?”
MS. OLIVER: [laughs] Well, we can go back and read Lucretius.
MS. TIPPETT: What does Lucretius do then?
MS. OLIVER: Lucretius just presents this marvelous and important idea that what we are made of will make something else, which to me is very important.
and the conversation ends with this, worth chiseling into the cyber-granite that is our imaginary space:
this is krista: In A Poetry Handbook you wrote, “Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision — a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.” And I just wanted to read that back to you because I feel like you’ve given that to so many people. You’ve demonstrated that. And you also write in poetry about thinking of Schubert scribbling on a cafe napkin, “Thank you. Thank you.” And I feel like so many people when they read — when they imagine you standing outdoors with your notebook and pen in hand, you know, “Thank you, thank you.”
She existed in another dimension to which she gave form and
substance and a glimpse into eternity…Such sensitivity is given to
few and must have weighed heavily upon her at times, groping to
express the visions that visited her…or that she discovered with
intake of surprise. How does one describe all the elements of
imagination vs reality? Or the deep, deep realization of the divine
in one’s existence and about one? Our poor world looks upon
faith as “an old fashioned term” and does not realize it is the fire,
the rope and the bread that Mary expressed through poetry…How
poor we have grown and how much more dim is our world without that gentle, discerning soul… Thank you, thank you, Bam.
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.
beautiful. thank you……
spent a good chunk of this snowy weekend inside the pages of mary O’s ” a poetry handbook,” a brilliant tutorial on the essence of poetry and poem-making. i spilled ink aplenty underlining, making asterisks and stars in the margins. and then i came to this last line, and knew i had to dash to the table to leave it for all of you:
“For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.”
Wonderfully done. Thank you, Richard
oh, richard, how lovely to find you here! hope you’re well, and thank you…..
Absolutely lovely (as usual), dearest bam.
P. S. Just catching up here at the table as my plate has been piled high of late … xox
bless you for carving out the time to be here, sweet angel. i know there is lots and lots heavy on your heart. may light surround you, and know that love flows from here. xoxoxox