Mary Oliver died today, at the age of 83 [read about it here: Mary Oliver Obituary], and the day has been diminished; the world, in fact, has been slightly diminished. If you know anything about me at all, and have read any of my work, you know how much I love Mary Oliver. I have more of her poems committed to memory than any other poet [Gerard Manley Hopkins is a close second], and I have woven her poetry into more sermons, lectures, articles, books and blog posts than I can count. I even went so far as to pay the copyright fee to quote one of my very favorite poems of hers [which I will share at the end of this post; also quoted in the New York Times story] in my latest book, in the “Salvation” chapter, because it really encapsulates almost everything I believe about the “so what” of being saved. [She may not mention Jesus by name, but I’m quite certain he’s there.]
In that poem, like so many of her poems, God doesn’t show up explicitly, but is woven into every line. I feel like the world was sacramental for Oliver, and in her loving attention to life in all its detail–include the experience of death–she taught her readers how to love the world themselves, and how to love God in loving the world. I don’t think those were two separate things for her: instead, I think they were so deeply woven together that they were beautifully and joyfully intertwined, always.
Just speaking personally, I can say that Oliver opened up the world to me in new ways, offering revelatory views on the mundane, and tender expressions of compassion for the familiar–too often ignored and overlooked. She loved dogs, and her dog poems are especially poignant for me [and other dog lovers, I know.] She invited a spirit of open engagement, wonder, and awe–a way of being in the world that took nothing for granted, and offered joy and compassion in equal measure as it was received. She was, in short, an extraordinary see-er of the world; and for her, that seeing was also a creative act of love and respect. Just knowing that she is no longer in the world makes me sad, but knowing all she has left us in her work, is a great consolation.
Here is the poem, “When Death Comes”–I’m going to transcribe it from memory, so it may not be exactly right. I hope that she has found that cottage of darkness as delightfully surprising as she imagined it would be.
When death comes, like a hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me
and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes like the measle-pox;
when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder-blades,
I want to slip 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, 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 a 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 and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened and full of argument;
I don’t want to end up merely having visited this world.