#NPM2020 Day 4: In Blackwater Woods, by Mary Oliver

Happy Saturday! I am excited to be spending the first weekend morning of #NPM2020 with this Mary Oliver poem. With poetry in particular, I’ve always defined “my favorites” as those poems that burrow into my ribs and stick permanently into my memory; Mary Oliver is definitely up in the top tier of favorite poets, and this is my favorite Mary Oliver poem (though anyone who knows me well knows I love many). The last part of this poem, beginning with “To live in this world”, is the other set of poetry I’ve wanted to tattoo on my body; I read it for the first time about ten years ago, and since then it’s stuck with me through all manners of grief, loss, joy, and new beginnings.

Mary Oliver is a name you’ll likely hear a lot if you decide to “get into” poetry. She died in 2019, and while she lived, she was prolific, and her work was widely awarded. I think she’s a great place to start reading more poetry, especially if you like this one; her language is accessible and gorgeous at the same time. She’s most often inspired by nature, and her quiet, beautiful relationship with her long-term partner, Molly Malone Cook.

This is also a good poem to practice reading out loud to get a feel for why line breaks are happening. You might be alone in your house a lot these days… what better time to try something that feels unfamiliar at first? (See this wonderful Edward Hirsch essay on How To Read A Poem for a more in-depth discussion of line-breaks if you’re interested!)

In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver

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
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

to let it go.

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983. Mary Oliver has a number of wonderful volumes; American Primitive, one of her earlier works, was the first I read because of how deeply I fell in love with this poem, but I think probably the most famous is Wild Geese, a collection including the eponymous poem which seems to be one of the most commonly shared that I see.

You can read a lot more of her poetry in lots of different places online: she has a Poetry Foundation profile as well as an Academy of American Poets profile. She is also a common enough modern poet with enough published volumes that if you have a Hoopla or Overdrive account to check out books from your local library at this time, you’re very likely to find something!

Written by

Higher ed professional. Michigan native. Very into dogs.

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