Three Poems by Mary Oliver

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“My First Clam” Mary Oliver (1964) Photo by Molly Cook

The poetry of Mary Oliver has meant so much to me over the years. I see so many qualities in her poetry. It’s lyrical, evocative, tender, direct, luminous, unassuming, modest, undaunted, vulnerable, precise, simple and generous. Sometimes, all of these things at once.

I remember the first time I read Mary Oliver’s words, it felt like a couple of extra tones and hues were added to my colour spectrum.

In the extract below taken from her collection Upstream, the breathless listing of flora and herb resonate with vitality. Reading them makes me see them as if for the first time, with a childlike wonder.

‘Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale helatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin-flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.”
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Oliver’s life and work was an exercise in noticing, deeply noticing and then showing us all what we missed.

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“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

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Critics sometimes called her language “over simple” or “sentimental.”  Though it was certainly true that her writing lacked the affectation and opacity of much contemporary poetry that seemed almost defiantly intentional.

Although known for her keen observations of the natural world, her poetry often had almost religious undertones and a philosophical gravity that added dimension and depth to all the vivid imagery.

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“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

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Below are three of my favourite Mary Oliver Poems. Each one embodies that union of the natural world with the innermost sanctuary of the spirit that resonate through her work.

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The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

 

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Maybe

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry,
So everybody was saved
that night.
But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
the threshold — the uncles
mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water —
sometimes, for days,
you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
one or two of them felt
the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
that wants to swallow everything,
gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was —
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea.

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Mysteries, Yes

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.


3 thoughts on “Three Poems by Mary Oliver

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