“Lucretius just presents this marvelous and important idea that what we are made of will make something else… There is no nothingness. With these little atoms that run around too little for us to see, but put together they make something. And that to me is a miracle.” – Mary Oliver to Krista Tippett, “On Being: Listening to the World,” 2015
I don’t remember the first time I read a poem by Mary Oliver. I just know that by the time she and Billy Collins were scheduled to read at the Strathmore in Bethesda in November 2012, it was important enough to me to see her read in person that I waded into the already-frigid waters of my marriage to drag my husband to the reading with me.
“Come with me,” I begged. “They’re two of my favorite poets. It’ll be worth it, you’ll see.”
We had been married for almost two years, and all the goodness of the relationship had been sucked dry. Our shared love of art was almost all that remained between us, so he came along. I was reaching for everything left that we both loved, offering it up to him. See, we like this; see this is nice; see, you don’t hate me.
At that point, Oliver’s was a voice that straddled the two worlds I knew best: literature and theology. She wasn’t particular about creeds but her spirituality bled into her poems, and yet she didn’t make my teeth ache with saccharine overdose.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your 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.
– “Wild Geese”
I couldn’t stand to read the Bible anymore, but I could read poetry. I couldn’t pray without giving myself a migraine, but I could walk and mutter poems under my breath. I felt it was absolutely necessary to hear her in person, like a pilgrim feels about making oblation to the saint they have toiled to visit.
It was gray and raining outside and the Strathmore auditorium, lined with light wood, felt illuminated and warm. I shed my coat and leaned forward, hanging on every word Billy spoke, laughing at his jokes, savoring the chills that ran through my body when he finished a poem and let the line hang in the air for a moment. I was so absorbed that I don’t remember what my husband thought or how he reacted—for once, I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to make space enough to care. So much was loaded about our interactions, so much was heavy, but this space and this moment was mine. He was a bystander.
Then Oliver took the floor. She looked so small and frail, and I was surprised by this because her poems had always struck me as being written by someone vigorous who went into nature to become gentle. I did not expect her to be fragile, held up by the world around her. But her voice was steady and she worked her spell on the room far differently from Collins—the jokes were gentle, the emotion transparent and unprotected by charm or wit. She spent most of her time talking about her dog, and about Molly.
Molly Malone Cook had been dead for a while, but Mary was still deeply in love with and in conversation with her partner—and the warmth and peace with which she described their years together filled me with heat and with envy. I was afraid of what I felt: I wanted that kind of partnership, I did not have that kind of partnership, and I was still scared to admit that I might desire women.
At the end of her set, she read the poems she considered obligatory, and I found myself suspended in time on the sound of her voice telling me that I did not need to be good. That I just needed to let my body love what it loves. And thus began my devotion to Mary Oliver’s poetry.
backed away finally
and flung up her white tail
and went floating off toward the trees–
but the moment before she did that
was so wide and so deep
it has lasted to this day;
I have only to think of her–
the flower of her amazement
and the stalled breath of her curiosity,
and even the damp touch of her solicitude
before she took flight–
– “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957”
The first woman I ever kissed after my divorce was also my housemate and coworker at a weird seasonal job we’d stumbled into. She would sit by the fireplace smoking before bed and I would read her poems to help her calm down from the day. She said she wanted to learn more poetry. I didn’t want to scare her away—loving her was like befriending a deer. I had to move slowly. So I started by reading her Mary Oliver’s poetry, from New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1, along with Wendell Berry’s The Country of Marriage, with Billy Collins’s Horoscopes for the Dead.
She and I kept coming back to Oliver the most, though, and when she explosively dumped me and stormed out of our shared home, I came back to Mary Oliver without her. I copied her poems in a journal I kept in the kitchen of our strange little house in the woods, and I wrote some of my own, about the kiss, about the woods, about what I was going to do with my life.
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain—not a single
answer has been found—
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.
– “First Snow”
Oliver’s voice was like a flashlight beam pushing the dark away as I wandered, asking questions. Am I responsible for my younger siblings? Do I take my PTSD seriously? Do I write about the abuse? Am I good enough for a good job, for love, for family, for loyalty? Am I good enough?
Her ritualistic insistence on observation, on patience, on empathy would answer me with “look over here, look closer, keep walking.” The night never seemed to end, the questions shifted and evolved, and the poems were always there. Her voice led me on, pushing me to keep watching, keep breathing, keep walking. Remember your body is an animal, too, she seemed to say. Take care of it. Trust yourself.
Her writing, her queerness, her despair over being kept indoors—all this was permission to me to keep asking questions, keep foraging for answers. To sit and watch a troubled area of my heart like she watched the animals in the woods, waiting for a moment of connection, understanding, empathy.
Childhood trauma makes you poor. It’s statistically proven. I want to fight against it, to believe in the American bootstraps mythology, but Mary didn’t even try. After a childhood where the woods were her solace from abuse at home, after dropping out of both Ohio State University and Vassar College, she made a decision to just write and accept the limitations that her future came with. She doesn’t write about this much excepting in interviews, but I think it’s this calculated elimination of discontent over lost options that gives her poetry its radically playful devotion to joy. I also think this is probably why she isn’t taken as a “serious” poet by critics, why her books never got the space they deserved in the New York Times or our humanities textbooks—she decided to step outside of the game of capitalism, of elitism, and just live as an observer in the world.
Mary Oliver: … For most of my life, I haven’t had the structure of an actual job. When I was very young and decided I wanted to try to write as well as I could, I made a great list of all the things I would never have.
Maria Shriver: Wouldn’t have?
Mary Oliver: Would not have, because I thought poets never made any money. A house, a good car, I couldn’t go out and buy fancy clothes or go to good restaurants. I had the necessities. …
– 2011 interview at Oprah.com
I didn’t learn about Oliver’s childhood abuse or her poverty until so late in my love for her that these added shared experiences almost didn’t matter. I started at an MFA program, where the airs of writers trying to show off their knowledge of the avant-garde were lost on me. I’d stopped worrying about what I loved anymore, or who. I loved Mary. I stayed put, kept writing, kept reading what I loved rather than what was bizarre or difficult.
I was still fearful, though: advertising that you love a thing seemed to me to be the quickest way to lose it. And so I didn’t advertise my devotion, my ritual of returning to her poems when I didn’t know what to write or felt like I was forgetting how to see the world and pay attention to it. I watched as my chosen families, ex-fundamentalist Christians and newly out queer millennials, discovered her writing one by one, watching you do not have to be good show up on Instagram over and over as a generation of earnest young adults, hungry for beauty and truth after being beaten about the ears with guilt for decades, fell in love with the lightness her poetry offered.
For a decade I fought my desire to write, refusing to call myself a writer without salting the word with disclaimers. I wrote blog posts in the evenings, I wrote long letters. I wrote fiction sometimes, but I knew it would never make me a living. I’m a millennial, I am resilient and fluent in the gig economy, but I cashed out my tiny retirement fund from my first real job to pay off the debt I accrued from my cross-country move following my divorce and lived without much real healthcare for almost five years.
I wanted to prove to the world that I could be better than a homeschooled kid who graduated college by the skin of her teeth. I wanted to not be the woman who lost a husband and a job in the same year because of PTSD and cult-related trauma. I wanted to have a normal, boring life, a life in which I saved money and went to happy hour with coworkers and came home to a generic apartment in a large American city somewhere.
Oliver’s walks in the woods weren’t just for inspiration—she was foraging for food, fishing, clamming, collecting. Her career is illuminated with awards, but she is rarely taken seriously because her poetry seems to be sentimental, too easily made into Instagram-friendly quotations. Oliver was an outsider. She was poor, lesbian, and odd. She didn’t advertise her life’s tragedies. She just kept walking in the woods every day with her notebook, reporting on the world around her, on her heart, on what she saw and felt.
I can’t change my past, my weirdness, my traumas. I can’t change how my body reacts to stress or its demands that I slow down. I can’t change the fact that I’m queer, that writing is my touchstone for remembering how to be alive, that I love what I love and have lost many things which I have loved.
Creation begets death which begets more creation. We’ve lost Oliver, but it’s just matter rearranging, atoms reshaping themselves in new ways like Lucretius said. I can continue to learn with her, to observe the world and myself through her empathetic eyes. I’m no longer afraid of loving and losing the things I love, thanks to her. I’ll keep writing my poems about these things, because she kept writing hers about the things she loved. And maybe, someday, something new will grow.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.