Deepest gratitude and reverence, but not grief for the passing of Mary Oliver

I never asked her, so I’m guessing here, but I imagine that she cared not a whit about dog-whistling in any obscure poetic code to win the approval of any of the so-called “right” people; she wanted to transmit truth, and she did so, and I believe that this is why her poetry resonates so widely: really true Truths can’t not be universal.

I’ve been struck by how un-sad I feel about the passing of Mary Oliver. How could I not be sad about the death of a poet who has been a voice of such wisdom, solace, and inspiration to me?

My introduction to Mary Oliver was a copy of New and Selected Poems, Volume Two that I found at a thrift store almost ten years ago. I was going through a divorce, and that book was balm and refuge amidst stress and grief. I could tell that she had discovered some things about how to live wisely that I had not, and her poetry was a gentle invitation, nudging me toward a better way to live and be.

The news of her death found me just before the last session of the high school English class I teach, where I had already planned to share her poem “The Summer Day” with my students. I felt a reverence for her passing, but not sorrow; the parts of her that matter most to me are still here. Her poetry abounds with evidence of how fully she inhabited her “one wild and precious life.” She distilled the best parts of Reality that came through her into these self-contained vessels called poems, and she did this so very generously.

After Stephen Hawking passed last year, I heard someone make the analogy that when a great star dies, it explodes and sends the heavy material of its body flying out into space where that material becomes the seeds for the birth and development of new stars. I can’t seem to find who said that to give proper credit, but that’s what I’ve seen happening all across my social media feed since Mary Oliver’s death. Every time I look, my feed is exploding with someone’s favorite Mary Oliver poem. And I smile and feel connection and kinship as, “Yes! I love that one too!” or the joy of new discovery as, “Ooh, I hadn’t heard that one before! Thank you for sharing!” I hadn’t realized that she had meant so much to so many people I know, and not just people who identify as poets or writers.

Several tributes have mentioned how critics had little love for her work. Perhaps she wasn’t opaque or exclusionary enough to be “elite.” I never asked her, so I’m guessing here, but I imagine that she cared not a whit about dog-whistling in any obscure poetic code to win the approval of any of the so-called “right” people; she wanted to transmit truth, and she did so, and I believe that this is why her poetry resonates so widely: really true Truths can’t not be universal.

I’ll end by sharing her poem “Terns,” which encapsulates such Truth. Deepest love and gratitude, Mary Oliver, for the bright star that you were, for how thoroughly you lived, and for all that you left us.

Terns

Don’t think just now of the trudging forward of thought,
but of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation.

It’s summer, you never saw such a blue sky,
and here they are, those white birds with quick wings,

sweeping over the waves,
chattering and plunging,

their thin beaks snapping, their hard eyes
happy as little nails.

The years to come — this is a promise — 
will grant you ample time

to try the difficult steps in the empire of thought
where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.

The flock thickens
over the roiling, salt brightness. Listen,

maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world
in the clasp of attention, isn’t the perfect prayer,

but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,

but of pure submission. Tell me, what else
could beauty be for? And now the tide

is at its very crown,
the white birds sprinkle down,

gathering up the loose silver, rising
as if weightless. It isn’t instruction, or a parable.

It isn’t for any vanity or ambition
except for the one allowed, to stay alive.

It’s only a nimble frolic
over the waves. And you find, for hours,

you cannot even remember the questions
that weigh so in your mind.