Farewell, Mary Oliver

January 17, 2019 Authors 3

Poet Mary Oliver has died at the age of 83. Her poems have delighted and comforted readers for nearly 60 years, in part because they are so accessible. “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear,” Oliver once said in an interview with NPR. “It mustn’t be fancy.” Oliver’s work won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award… and the love of many readers. She will be sorely missed.

I’d like to share with you with two of her poems. “The Summer Day” concludes with perhaps her most often quoted lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” And “When Death Comes” has a special poignancy in light of her death. In it, Oliver wrote,

 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

 

Ms. Oliver, thank you for doing far more than simply visiting this world. You did indeed make of your life “something particular, and real.” And your great gift was to shared that life with us, in all its joy and wonder and pain.

Requiescat in pace.

 

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step 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, as 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 the 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 real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

 

 

Other Tributes to Mary Oliver: The GuardianNPRBrainpickings (from 2009; includes sound clips of Oliver reading her own work); Ruth Franklin’s 2017 tribute in The New Yorker

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