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.


Friday poem: Wild Geese

1 01 2010

Mary Oliver is lately known as a nature poet, not merely chronicling ‘the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground’, but tuning her sight into it.

Lately: She’s been writing for over forty years, the last twenty or so which light on the natural world.

This is when I came to Oliver, in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and watched as she picked up flowers and mice and (figuratively) bears and skunks and turned them over in her hands.

Taken one by one, these poems are a wonder, a pause in the rush of life.

I admit that I prefer her poems this way, one by one, rather than piled up one after the other. The images fade into a kind of nature-walk report, losing the distinctiveness of her attention, of that pause.

I offer two poems this week, the one meant for Friday, the other for a friend.

The Friday poem appears in a kind of fulcrum period of Oliver’s writing. Her early works are full of people and direct questions of the world; those later works take in all creatures except the human, drawn around owls and egrets and hermit crabs.

But in the middle is the mix of humans and animals and questions pointing toward answers. She is still attached to the specifically human world, but beginning to loosen us from our own centrality.

I went back and forth between this poem and another, finally deciding on the one below because it was the one I said Yes to first.

As with other poems by other poets, the one I choose is not necessarily the poet’s ‘best’ poem, the one with the most precise rhythm or exact language or most indelible imagery. But, as with those other poems by other poets, something about this poem snagged my attention, today.

Perhaps it is the new year, which yesterday I disdained as any kind of marker (even as I marked it). The poem is a bit more incantatory than I usually like, but the juxtaposition of a specific life mattering in the general disinterested universe, well, that works for me, today.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on you 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 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 gees, 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.


The second is a poem for a friend. I hadn’t been thinking of her as I thumbed through the pages, but when I scanned it, then read it again, slowly, I thought of her. So, for you.

A Visitor

My father, for example,
who was young once
and blue-eyed,
on the darkest of nights
to the porch and knocks
wildly at the door,
and if I answer
I must be prepared
for his waxy face,
for his lower lip
swollen with bitterness.
And so, for a long time,
I did not answer,
but slept fitfully
between his hours of rapping.
But finally there came the night
when I rose out of my sheets
and stumbled down the hall.
The door fell open

and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hollow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.