Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
January 17, 2019 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver has died. She was 83. posted by gauche (71 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
I love her work, and return to her reading of "Wild Geese" frequently

.
posted by VeritableSaintOfBrevity at 9:28 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


.
posted by torridly at 9:31 AM on January 17


.
posted by Iridic at 9:31 AM on January 17


.
posted by dogheart at 9:31 AM on January 17


.
posted by thelonius at 9:33 AM on January 17


.
posted by gwint at 9:33 AM on January 17


nonononononono

She's a poet of so much gratitude and that's so wonderful.

Oh. Oh. This hurts.

Everything she shared with the world and with her words was beautiful and I'm so grateful for all of it.
posted by barchan at 9:33 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]


What do you say, Percy? I am thinking
of sitting out on the sand to watch
the moon rise. It’s full tonight.
So we go

and the moon rises, so beautiful it
makes me shudder, makes me think about
time and space, makes me take
measure of myself: one iota
pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself

thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up
into my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.

“The Sweetness of Dogs” by Mary Oliver from Dog Songs
Her poems on the subject of dogs (be it hers or just in general) never fails to make me smile and feel warm inside. she wrote with such grace and approachability, she made poetry feel accessible and familiar.

She will be greatly missed.

.
posted by Fizz at 9:35 AM on January 17 [22 favorites]


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

from, "Sometimes," Red Bird

.
posted by pjsky at 9:35 AM on January 17 [10 favorites]


Ahhhh .
posted by Young Kullervo at 9:39 AM on January 17


She gave an assembly at my high school; I wish I'd appreciated her more then.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:41 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


When Death Comes
--by Mary Oliver (Oct 03, 2006)

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

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.
Hope ya'll don't mind if I share one more. It feels very appropriate and I just want to hang out in here for the rest of the day enjoying her words and living inside of this world of dogs and nature she created for all of us.

*sighs*
posted by Fizz at 9:45 AM on January 17 [50 favorites]


.
posted by lalochezia at 9:51 AM on January 17


Yeah, as far as I'm concerned this thread filling up with Mary Oliver poems would not be a terrible thing at all.

Here's one that I've been coming back to the past few weeks:

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
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?

Her book about writing poetry is, itself, a testament to the musicality of language.
posted by gauche at 9:53 AM on January 17 [12 favorites]


I Worried

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

.
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:56 AM on January 17 [22 favorites]


.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:58 AM on January 17


From the New Yorker 2017
posted by criticalbill at 9:59 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


.
posted by Kattullus at 10:05 AM on January 17


.
posted by Cash4Lead at 10:10 AM on January 17


This one. Very sad news.

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.
posted by emmet at 10:11 AM on January 17 [35 favorites]


When Death Comes

Until I read that poem many years ago, I was not a person who had a favorite poem.

.
posted by solotoro at 10:12 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


.
posted by lagreen at 10:12 AM on January 17


.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 10:18 AM on January 17


Spring
Somewhere
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
rising
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
coming
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.
posted by tangosnail at 10:22 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]


Farewell to one of the greats.

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
posted by katie at 10:27 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
"In Blackwater Woods"
-----
This one hits really hard. I have found a lot of comfort in her poetry over the years.
posted by invokeuse at 10:34 AM on January 17 [19 favorites]


I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

and also

You must not ever stop being whimsical.
And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

Oh, Mary.


.
posted by ikahime at 10:37 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]


“I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
Then I pray”
posted by cross_impact at 10:39 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


.
posted by the sobsister at 10:42 AM on January 17


.

I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in
singing, especially when singing is not necessarily
prescribed.
posted by assenav at 10:44 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


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.
posted by Phyllis keeps a tight rein at 10:47 AM on January 17 [20 favorites]


The Uses of Sorrow

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
posted by gauche at 10:47 AM on January 17 [10 favorites]


I had never heard of her until now. Her poems are wonderful.

.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 10:58 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Her words got me through some terrible times but - most importantly - they fostered a habit of observing nature. I hike in the woods at least once a week just to see what's happening, how the ferns are growing, how the ice is crawling up the creek, how the mushrooms are reclaiming the fallen trees by the trail. It's a gift beyond poetry.

Thank you, Mary. Go into that cottage of darkness with a light heart, you have helped so many of us see.
posted by lydhre at 11:06 AM on January 17 [13 favorites]


A life spent thus is a life well-lived.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:39 AM on January 17


Oh gosh.

Thank you, Mary Oliver, for sharing your heart-full bravery with the world.

.
posted by marlys at 11:43 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Gorgik at 11:46 AM on January 17


I read "In Blackwater Woods" at my father's memorial service last year.
I did get through it without crying, because Dad would have been embarrassed.
But that was the only time I managed that.

.
posted by Floydd at 11:46 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


The Kingfisher

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
Like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a single silver leaf. I think this is
The prettiest world— so long as you don’t mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn’t born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water— hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don’t say that he’s right. Neither
do I say he’s wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

.
posted by dywypi at 12:10 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


.

Love the post title.
posted by honey badger at 12:21 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


.
posted by epj at 12:23 PM on January 17


My username comes from this Mary Oliver poem. I read it over and over when I was going through some hard things in my life. I am so sorry to hear that she is gone, and yet surprised that she still lived in our world, given how well she transcended it in life.

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it.
There are plenty of lives and
whole towns destroyed or about to be.
We are not wise, and not very often kind.
And much can never be redeemed.
Still life has some possibility left.
Perhaps this is its way of fighting back,
that sometimes something happened better
than all the riches or power in the world.
It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it
in the instant when love begins.
Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is,
don’t be afraid of its plenty.
Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Autostraddle's coverage on this is pretty good too - Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Lesbian Poet, Is Dead at 83.
posted by possibilityleft at 12:27 PM on January 17 [14 favorites]


Oh no

She was so very tough, and also tender. Clear-eyed, and also willing to show the limits of her understanding. Dream Work and House of Light have sustained me again and again. For thirty years, I've turned to them and found both joy and bracing reality.

"I think I will always be lonely
in this world, where the cattle
graze like a black and white river--

where the ravishing lilies
melt, without protest, on their tongues-
where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
just rises and floats away."
posted by Caxton1476 at 12:31 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


.

"Wild Geese" changed my life. Every time I reread it, it changes my life again.
posted by rogerroger at 12:32 PM on January 17 [6 favorites]


.

"The Journey" changed my life again just in the last year, and I've loved her work since I was a wee college student poet. (We even have the same birthday!)
posted by epersonae at 12:40 PM on January 17


.
She has been with me through so many ups and downs. Grateful for sharing your words and spirit, Mary Oliver. May you rest among the rushes and reeds.
posted by stillmoving at 12:59 PM on January 17


I wish I had words to offer the smallest fraction of what her words have meant to me.

.
posted by meinvt at 1:58 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Hobgoblin at 2:05 PM on January 17


Ah, damn.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:08 PM on January 17


.

She meant a lot to me.

I remember feeling like she was someone unknown that I discovered for quite some time; about 15 years ago I wrote out "Wild Geese" into a notebook and gave it as a birthday gift to a queer friend of mine pursuing, like, a doctorate in something to do with poetry (I don't know much about higher education terms but I know she's kind of a big deal in that world now). When I realized later how well known that poem was, I felt embarrassed (considering the recipient of the gift), but that faded in time. I've lost touch with the friend, I wonder if she thought of that notebook today, and of her least academic friend sharing something that touched her profoundly.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 2:14 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


.

Poem of the One World

This morning
the beautiful white heron
was floating along above the water

and then into the sky of this
the one world
we all belong to

where everything
sooner or later
is a part of everything else

which thought made me feel
for a little while
quite beautiful myself.
posted by camyram at 2:39 PM on January 17 [8 favorites]


I've loved almost everything I've read by Mary Oliver, and have always meant to take the time to dig more deeply into her work - so sad to hear that she has died.

(As an aside, thank you to invokeuse and Floydd for mentioning "In Blackwater Woods," which I was unfamiliar with. It brought me to tears. I'm about halfway through my fifth pregnancy, after four previous losses. I am so, so grateful and exhilarated to be at this point and cannot wait to meet our child. And then sometimes - like just now, reading this beautiful and wrenching poem - I'm reminded that he or she will be mortal, with all the joy and pain that entails, and that someday, one of us will have to let the other go. And I know this is how life works - but still, tears.)

.
posted by Synesthesia at 3:03 PM on January 17 [9 favorites]


It's from her that I finally learned I did not have to be good.

.
posted by Qex Rodriguez at 3:18 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


This is a great loss.
posted by SLC Mom at 4:00 PM on January 17


I often joke that Wild Geese is the Unitarian Our Father. She certainly gave us a multitude of ways to express wonder and love and joy and sadness.

.
posted by Tesseractive at 4:12 PM on January 17 [6 favorites]


I was surprised by the New Yorker article linked above that referred to her having many critics. Everyone that I’ve known that knows her has been moved by her and loves her. She was a great soul and she made the world better. She is the essence of art, she communicates the ineffable and makes us part of something larger.
posted by eggkeeper at 4:55 PM on January 17


.
posted by bibliotropic at 4:56 PM on January 17


Thank you, everyone, for sharing specific poems.
posted by eggkeeper at 4:56 PM on January 17 [8 favorites]


One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning—some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.
.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 6:47 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


All due apologies. I sort of felt that I had to.

POEM ON THE DAY OF MARY OLIVER’S PASSING
Of course there is no way that I can write today, how could I?
But how can I not? Please understand that I know that nothing
I write can touch the beauty… well. Such gorgeous stuff
You did in this world. This world of ours… how you so well
Saw the wonders and called them out to us. I know, this isn’t
Specific enough, I don’t have that deftness with detail that made
Your work sing with such life. Tonight I don’t care, because
You are gone and not: I want to celebrate what you have done,
How wondrous the many gifts you’ve given us, how you showed
Us how to live so well. Celebrate that, sing your praises
With the joy you’ve brought me, and hope in my little heart
That this world has indeed taken you so some next stage,
That might be even brighter than the one you shared with me.

And when we lived in Woodland Hills, I would carry my young son
Spencer out to the back yard, in the baking heat, and we’d wander
Around the yard or play in the sprinkler… I don’t know what we did.
But I remember, daily, I’d hold him in front of the big poster
Of The Wild Geese, and I’d recite it to him. I felt that it would be
A perfect guide for him in this world, in this life he was starting.

The poster was from one year at Burning Man, out one morning…
A fellow had set up an art installation, a series of painted boards with
Poems on the front, on bars to stand freely on the playa, for people
To wander by… a row of them, poems, and of course The Wild Geese
Was there. Of course. It was a morning walk on the last day of the event
And he was taking down the boards. So I helped him, for a couple hours
Before it got hot, heat again, it’s cold here now, Oregon winter night,
Wet darkness and cold that settles into your bones for a few months,
But that day on the dusty alkali playa would get much warmer, anyway
I brought that one home with us.

At our wedding, we had had our friend Alix read the poem
As part of the ceremony, I remember her breath catching… she had
Been the one who had been my poet friend in Boulder Creek,
And had been involved with Burning Man and the Media Team
And had gotten me involved, which is how I met Lee, that night
When Larry came to talk to us all in Ben Lomond. So it was fitting
There too.

And Alix and I had gone up to hear David White talk at Green Gulch
The Zen Center set in the hills rolling down to the Pacific in Marin,
I think it’s called the Headlands… did you ever go to Green Gulch?
It is green there, and the buildings are weathered wood… cedar maybe
That look almost as if they’d been transported from Japan, that dark
Color of the wood made into buildings… somehow less artificial than
Other buildings. Anyway, I remember David White talking that day
About The Wild Geese, I remember him saying… something… it was
About the line “...you only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves…” and how… the amazing power and beauty of that line
Rested on that one word “only”.

Jan. 17, 2019 Eugene
posted by emmet at 7:13 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


.
posted by TwoStride at 7:18 PM on January 17


.
posted by augustimagination at 7:41 PM on January 17


this too, was a gift.

.
posted by Grandysaur at 9:08 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


.
posted by filtergik at 4:40 AM on January 18


I read somewhere that her poetry is the type that we people sometimes find too simple when we are young, and complex and comforting and spot on as we grow older. That rings deeply true for me. Perhaps because as I have aged, the woods and nature have felt more like home and safer than the concrete jungle I spend too much time in. And I crave the simplicity and peace of the woods. Rest in Power, queer magical poet.

.
posted by anya32 at 9:26 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


.
posted by allthinky at 11:01 AM on January 18


I'm reminded that he or she will be mortal, with all the joy and pain that entails, and that someday, one of us will have to let the other go. And I know this is how life works - but still, tears.

This is one of the hardest things.

My daughter was born with colic and tongue-tied. She wouldn't sleep. Wouldn't nurse. We woke every two hours and fed her to keep up her weight. We slept in shifts, too short to rest. In the grocery store one morning, strung out on coffee and sunlight, I realized that every person on this earth had someone who loved them enough to do this work. To wake up over and over again and keep them alive. I had, briefly, a picture of humanity as a swelling tide of love, rising and breaking on the rocks of existence.

Two years later, in 2017, my mother died, unexpectedly and in her sleep, and I saw the other side, the undertow of that tide. Grief is how the universe balances out: it is the price we pay for having loved someone or having been loved by them. It visits me still, and one of the hardest things about its visits is that I know it will come for my children also, if I am lucky enough to predecease them, and I cannot spare them its visits. I can only ready them how best I know.

Poetry is one of the ways I know. One of the best consolations I have had, since my mother died, is a collection called The Art of Losing. I go to it often, and that is where I first read this poem of Oliver's:
Ice

My father spent his last winter
Making ice-grips for shoes

Out of strips of inner tube and scrap metal.
(A device which slips over the instep

And holds under the shoe
A section of roughened metal, it allows you to walk

Without fear of falling
Anywhere on the ice or snow.) My father

should not have been doing
All that close work

In the drafty workshop, but as though
he sensed travel at the edge of his mind,

He would not be stopped. My mother
Wore them, and my aunt, and my cousins.

He wrapped and mailed
A dozen pairs to me, in the easy snows

Of Massachusetts, and a dozen
To my sister, in California.

Later we learned how he'd given them away
To the neighbors, an old man

Appearing with cold blue cheeks at every door.
No one refused him,

For plainly the giving was an asking,
A petition to be welcomed and useful-

Or maybe, who knows, the seed of a desire
Not to be sent alone out over the black ice.

Now the house seemed neater: books,
Half-read, set back on the shelves;

Unfinished projects put away.
This spring

Mother writes to me: I am cleaning the workshop
And I have found

So many pairs of the ice-grips,
Cartons and suitcases stuffed full,

More than we can ever use.
What shall I do? And I see myself

Alone in that house with nothing
But darkly gleaming cliffs of ice, the sense

Of distant explosions,
Blindness as I look for my coat-

And I write back: Mother, please
Save everything.
Synesthesia, I am sending you and your baby all the hopes.
posted by gauche at 11:19 AM on January 18 [9 favorites]


> If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it.


This just made me burst into (mostly happy) tears, and I'm not someone who reads poetry. It fits in so perfectly with some things I've been thinking about lately, about finding new interests and about aging.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:04 PM on January 18 [2 favorites]


I was so sad to hear this yesterday.

I used to have The Swimming Lesson taped to the inside of my desk drawer in graduate school. (I was not that happy in graduate school.)


Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace, --
How to survive in any place.
posted by gerstle at 9:16 PM on January 18 [2 favorites]


New York Times obituary.
posted by gudrun at 7:56 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]


I have watched this many times, and have yet to get through it without crying:
What I Have Learned So Far by Mary Oliver
I think it's the ending. So simple, it will take my lifetime to do it.

What I Have Learned So Far

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of —indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.
posted by tuesdayschild at 5:05 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]


« Older Everyone Reinvents Taylorism   |   Waves in the Æther Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments