Mary Oliver, 1935-2019

17 01 2019

The Swimming Lesson

Feeling the ice 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.


Funny, a few nights ago I awoke from a dead sleep accompanied by the memory of almost drowning.

Was I 8, 9, 10? Old enough to go in the water of Lake Ellen by myself, young enough to have been scared that the big kids on the raft who were rocking it would overturn it and I would be trapped, underneath.

I didn’t understand physics, then, the great unlikeliness that a half-dozen skinny teenagers could overcome the stolid buoyancy of the barrels beneath the turf-topped raft. I knew only I could not be trapped, and so I jumped.

I should have been fine. I knew how to swim, and the water wasn’t quite over my head, but instead of floating and kicking I panicked, bobbing up and down, up and down, up and down.

I saw the shore, the lifeguard looking away.

And then someone grabbed me, an older kid—Dawn, I think it was—and dragged me to the shallows, making sure I was okay.

The beach was full, but no one noticed that I was drowning, and then was saved. It was just her, and me, grateful and ashamed.


There are better-known Oliver poems, and better Oliver poems, but this one caught my memory.

Catching Witches

18 07 2012

I don’t write poems anymore.

I don’t know why I stopped, don’t consider this a writer’s block, don’t know if I’ll ever write poems again.

The words always come, if not always right away, but how they come? That’s beyond me. I try to be good and pay attention when they do come, not to let them tumble out and away, but I can be careless, so careless with the words.

You can’t be careless in poetry; poetry is care for words, care in words, care for the quick-step and sidle, the long breathless pause and the swoon and swoop out over the water.

I would like that back, but here is one I wrote before the poetry went away. I may have posted it before, but if so, well, I like it enough to post it again.

Catching Witches

Washed down
the river
you will be
again into
the hands
of God.
if your lungs are
than your faith,
you will be
on this earth,
still alive,
but dead

There was no agenda when I wrote this, just the sound, and the impossibility.

Friday poem (Saturday): The Road Not Taken

29 05 2010

Robert Frost is blowin’ up!

Y’know, that whole ‘Fences’ thing? With La Palin, and McGinness and Twitter and ‘good fences make good neighbors’ and all that? And is Frost pro- or anti-fence? ironic about fences? talkin’ about something besides fences and neighborliness and all that?

Well, I don’t care. I don’t care about the half-guv and the journalist beyond that cheap thrill gossip, and barely even that. Yeah, Sullivan may have a point about paying attention to her if she does decide to run for Prez in 2012, but until that happens, I’m happy to leave Sully to it.

I’ve got other things on my mind, like, how do I support myself after my current job ends? How do I want to support myself after my current job ends?

This job isn’t terrible. The other temp and I get along, and the people we report to are smart and kind and utterly reasonable. The main task we have to perform—calling people who don’t necessarily want to talk to us—sucks, but, again, the working conditions are congenial enough. And, unusual for a temp job, we get vacation, personal, and sick days, as well as paid holidays.

Not a bad gig.

But: this not-bad gig has simply reinforced my antipathy for 9-5 work. I don’t like being in the office just because I have to be in the office, getting paid by the clock rather than the task. There’s a stability there which, honestly, is nice, but blecch, nice has never really been my thing.

So a long conversation with my friend L. in Seattle got me a-thinkin’ about other ways to support myself besides a regular 40h workweek. I’m not sure where I’m going to go with this, but as she noted about both her and her girlfriend, it is possible to cobble together a decent work-life based about the work itself, rather than around a regular schedule.

And, in fact, I have done that, more and less successfully, since I left Montreal, although I’ve felt more that I’ve been flailing about rather than freestyling.

Maybe I need a change in attitude toward all of this, to remind myself that I am still afloat, still moving—waving, not drowning—even if I am still at sea.

With that in mind, then, another Frost poem, another poem which is more ambiguous than it appears, more ambivalent than it ends.

Tricky man, that Frost.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Friday poem (Sunday): Ratty Go Batty

25 04 2010

I fucking hate money.

I may have mentioned this antipathy previously, but as I’ve spent the past few months working 1 & 2/3 jobs and actually saving money and am still—STILL—awoken by fears of debt and bills, it’s worth emphasizing.

Yes, money is useful—I get that. Unlike Sue Lowden, who thinks bartering livestock for splints and surgery is a good idea, I find it much easier to stuff a few pieces of green paper than chickens into my wallet, and coins are certainly a more durable form of change than eggs. Even an anti-capitalist like me can agree with Adam’s Smith’s observations on the ease and convenience of a common currency.

But I hate having to think about it, having to worry over it, to be shaken from sleep by it. I work—more or less hard—and certainly a lot, but months of unemployment years ago have left me in a hole which narrows my views and shortens my breath.

Piss and moan, piss and moan, I know. Get back to work!

But before I do, a bit more kvetching, over the top and angry and sly and funny for being over the top and angry and sly, courtesy of Caroline Fraser:

Ratty Go Batty
Look what your God has done to me. —Dracula

What a joke, this planet. The inmates
running the asylum. See them
in their little cars, whizzing? Stop
and go! Riding the escalators, flashing

their shiny finery, hoarding,
hawking. Wearing dark glasses
indoors. The rest of the animals
continue rational, sleeping in caves

or nests in winter, pursuing food, marking
territory clearly. None of this
petulance. What can be done
to restore order? Give the government

over to the insects, for the tidy digestion
of all that dung, give the infants
to the higher mammals
with the softest fur. Let it be done.

Friday poem (Wednesday): The Purification of Space For Dorothy

14 04 2010

There’s grading, a lecture to polish, and oh, have I mentioned that my apartment is a mess? You know what this means, don’t you?

It’s poetry time!

No, this is not like my old habit of cleaning my apartment whenever I had statistics homework. Not at all. (Even if grading sucks as much as stats.) Anyway, cleaning’s a drag; poetry is pure pleasure.

The New Yorker recently had a review of Kay Ryan’s work, and I was thinking of using one of the poems from the essay—Wait, I think it was, or Waiting—but I decided against it, for one of the very characteristics the reviewer noted of her poems: They’re short.

Now, I  like short poems—most anything longer than 4 pages and my fingers itch—but I wanted something a bit meatier this week, more involved than 10 or 20 lines.

No particular subject; just something that would pull me down and hold me under for awhile.

This one isn’t long, not really, so it doesn’t take much breath; still, you live in a city and your breath does catch on people like this.

Liliana Ursu caught Dorothy with her words. (Translated from the Romanian by Bruce Weigl.)

The Purification of Space For Dorothy

She has hair the color of rust.
She wears a red dress
and three watches:
one for her daughter in California,
one for her daughter in New York,
and one for her sister in Scotland.
She smokes cigarette after cigarette.
She takes lithium and tells everyone,
“Love, and do what you want.”

She listens to the same play on the radio
and tries to convince me
that Ibsen is American.

“He was like me, of course.
He can’t be anything else.”

She has a lover who works for God, she says.
“I’ve never met him,
so I wear this red dress
so he will recognize me
and know I am the fire.”

I pretend not to understand her.
I pretend I’m in a hurry
when she asks me, almost silently,
“What do you do
up in your apartment:
do you laugh or do you cry?”
I would like to answer her.
I would like to take her hand with three watches
and caress her
as if she were an orphan,
but she is on fire.

Below our mailboxes,
each morning,
she leaves a cup full of coffee,
a pack of cigarettes,
and, near them, a card which says,
“Live your life in beauty.
I leave these so you may partake,
as if in the body and blood of Christ.”

When she meets me running up or down the
she says the same thing:
“Fly if you want, but don’t run.
God loves us all,
but those who fly he loves the most.”

Quietly, Dorothy with rusty hair
and dress red as fire
“Raspberries ripen only in summer,
only when I dream of my love,”
and she shows me her empty wallet.
“Everything I touch turns to gold,” she says,
“then into silver, then to tears.”

Friday poem (Friday!): Little Fugue

2 04 2010

Anxious and scattered; words keep running away from me.

I need to write—and yes, need is the correct word.

A physical need, like that for air or water? No. But I feel it, physically, if I’m not doing the one thing I know I can do.

And then it builds, of course: I can’t pull my mind together, which means I can’t string words together, which exacerbates the entropy.

Chicken-egg-chicken—doesn’t matter which came first; my sternum contracts, regardless.

I wasn’t sure what to pick: a poem which reflects my skittering, or something to distract me from it. Picked up this one, then that, then came across this poem by Frank Bidart.

Not quite sure why I set this one aside; the poem itself seems incomplete to me, in need of one or two more goings-over to get it right.

And yet I set is aside, and yet I’m using it this week. Something is right about this.

Little Fugue

at birth you were handed a ticket

beneath every journey the ticket to this
journey in one direction

or say the body

is a conveyor belt, moving in one direction
slower or swifter than sight

at birth

you were handed a ticket, indecipherable
rectangle forgotten in your pocket

or say you stand upon a moving walkway

as if all you fear
is losing your

balance moving in one direction

beneath every journey the ticket to this
journey in one direction

Friday poem (Monday): An Anatomy of the World

29 03 2010

Tuesday update: Sorry for posting a naked poem—Wordpress was all wonky last night.


I have, of late, become preoccupied with the medieval period in Europe history, or, more accurately, with the intellectual history of that long moment of transition between medieval times and modernity.

The ‘whys’ of a such a preoccupation I’ll save for another post. But given my current backward glance, a poem from that moment seemed appropriate.

John Donne is not, strictly speaking, a medieval poet: He was writing at the turn of and into the 17th century, a time which might be pegged as ‘early modern.’ But he fits into that long moment of transition during which old certainties about the place of God in nature were crumbling under the onslaught of observation and a kind of deistic theorizing. 

Three centuries later Yeats noted that ‘the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’, but the intellectual revolutions of  the 17th century were in many ways far more unsettling than the political revolutions of the  20th: How was man to know who he was if his God were pushed into the recesses of the heavens, and mere mechanism replaced divinity and grace?

The section, below, from Donne’s elegy for a friend’s young daughter allows us entry into that disorienting new world—the world we now take for granted as our own. Reason and science and deduction will lead us forward, it was argued then (and now)—nevermind the past.

In mourning this young girl, however, Donne shows that a world without a past is a world without meaning; to take things apart may yield a new kind of knowledge, but it may also leave us dismantled.

from An Anatomy of the World

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no-man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
This is the world’s condition now, . . .