Mary Oliver opens the temple door

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Jan 25, 2019

Mary Oliver died Jan. 17 at her home in Florida. A native of Ohio, she lived for many years in Provincetown, Mass., at the end of Cape Cod. She was one of my favorite poets.

There will be -- have already been -- many eulogies for Oliver more eloquent than mine. But none will be more heartfelt than my lament. A member of my own tribe has gone on before; a light on my path has dimmed. Mary Oliver, with her incomparable attention to what was real, to the details of nature, made me see differently. For that inestimable gift, I will always be grateful.

I am awed to envy by her devotion to looking, her ability to simply pay attention. Her mysticism is the real thing, not some made-up or romanticized "let's all hold hands in the great chain of being" hooey. A remembrance of Oliver that I read online quoted her as saying, "For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple." She is able to learn from a cricket or an owl about the nature of existence, to be awed by the stately progress of a swan as it swims across the water. She looks at a heron and sees "an old Chinese poet," and longs to be like the kingfisher so she can do "something, anything, perfectly."

But she is never sentimental about nature, saying in "The Kingfisher," "I think this is the prettiest world -- so long as you don't mind a little dying." And death has a large presence in her poetry, from the owl that swoops to carry off some small prey from a winter field in its talons to the kingfisher diving for a fish described as "a silver leaf, with its broken red river" to the poet's beloved dog buried in the woods on a rainy day when "finally, the slick mountains of love break over us."

Her clear-eyed stance in relation to nature -- and the nature of existence -- allows Oliver to express a sly humor as well. Her poem "Bear" tells about coming across tracks in the woods, but the poem itself never mentions the word "bear."

"... how large a body must be to make

such a track, I am beginning to make

bad jokes. I have read probably

a hundred narratives where someone saw

just what I am seeing. Various things

happened next. A fairly long list, I won’t

go into it. But not one of them told

what happened next -- I mean, before whatever happens --

how the distances light up, how the clouds

are the most lovely shapes you have ever seen, how

the wild flowers at your feet begin distilling a fragrance

different, and sweeter than any you ever stood upon --- how

every leaf on the whole mountain is aflutter."

Of course, this is not laugh-out-loud humor, but the speaker's discomfiture, the making jokes to cover anxiety, and so on, brings a chuckle of recognition. And she makes you feel how the possibility that death may be lurking nearby heightens the perception and makes life, in all its fragility, incredibly precious. The poem would fall flat if it were earnest, if it talked straight-out about the preciousness of life. Oliver knows how to show -- to make us feel what she feels -- rather than merely tell.

And, despite her lack of sentimentality, she has an enduring belief in the goodness of life. In "Wild Geese," surely one of her most-quoted poems, she reminds us,

"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. ...

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."

We are not isolated, the poet says, except by our own failure to see that we are intimately a part of the natural world, and it is intrinsically part of us.

For me, although I am sad that she is no longer in the world, Mary Oliver's light will continue to shine; she will go on lifting the veil from my sight with her magical, lucid words.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Priscilla W. Tate | Jan 26, 2019 11:58

Thank you, Sarah.  For me she always seems to have a poem that speaks directly to whatever faces me at that moment or to some bit of the world I have forgotten to see.

 



Posted by: Melinda Lois Reingold | Jan 26, 2019 10:57

A lovely remembrance, worthy of its subject.

 



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