Mary Oliver

Row for Your Life

West Wind #2
by Mary Oliver, from West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems

You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rockswhen you hear that unmistakable
poundingwhen you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steamingthen row, row for your life
toward it.

Where I Am

Hierve de Aqua, Oaxaca, November 2010

Two poems by Mary Oliver from A Thousand Mornings

 

IF I WERE

There are lots of ways to dance and

to spin, sometimes it just starts my

feet first then my entire body, I am

spinning no one can see it but it is

happening. I am so glad to be alive,

I am so glad to be loving and loved.

Even if I were close to the finish,

even if I were at my final breath, I

would be here to take a stand, bereft

of such astonishments, but for them

 

If I were a Sufi for sure I would be

one of the spinning kind. 

 

I HAVE DECIDED

I have decided to find myself a home

in the mountains, somewhere high up

where one learns to iive peacefully in

the cold and the silence. It's said that

in such a place certain revelations may

be discovered. That what the spirit

reaches for may be eventually felt, if not

exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt. I'm

not talking about a vacation.

 

Of course, at the same time I mean to

stay exactly where I am.

 

Are you following me?  

A Mix of Power and Sweetness

Topiary Garden, October 4, 2012

Evidence
by Mary Oliver, from Evidence 
 
I.
 
Where do I live? If I had no address, as many people
do not, I could nevertheless say that I lived in the
same town as the lilies of the field, and the still
waters.
 
Spring, and all through the neighborhood now there are
strong men tending flowers.
 
Beauty without purpose is beauty without virtue. But
all beautiful things, inherently, have this function -
to excite the viewers toward sublime thought. Glory
to the world, that good teacher.
 
Among the swans there is none called the least, or
the greatest.
 
I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in
singing, especially when singing is not necessarily
prescribed.
 
As for the body, it is solid and strong and curious
and full of detail; it wants to polish itself; it
wants to love another body; it is the only vessel in
the world that can hold, in a mix of power and
sweetness: words, song, gesture, passion, ideas,
ingenuity, devotion, merriment, vanity, and virtue.
 
Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.

 

Almost a Voice

"In the act of writing the poem, I am obedient, and submissive. Insofar as one can, I put aside ego and vanity, and even intention. I listen. What I hear is almost a voice, almost a language. It is a second ocean, rising, singing into one’s ear, or deep inside the ears, whispering in the recesses where one is less oneself than a part of some single indivisible community. Blake spoke of taking dictation. I am no Blake, yet I know the nature of what he meant. Every poet knows it. One learns the craft, and then casts off. One hopes for gifts. One hopes for direction. It is both physical, and spooky. It is intimate, and inapprehensible. Perhaps it is for this reason that the act of first-writing, for me, involves nothing more complicated than paper and pencil. The abilities of a typewriter or computer would not help in this act of slow and deep listening."

~ Mary Oliver, from Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems

The Owl Who Comes
By Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems: Volume Two

the owl who comes
through the dark
to sit
in the black boughs of the apple tree

and stare down
the hook of his beak,
dead silent,
and his eyes,

like two moons
in the distance,
soft and shining
under their heavy lashes—

like the most beautiful lie—
is thinking
of nothing
as he watches

and waits to see
what might appear,
briskly,
out of the seamless,

deep winter—
out of the teeming
world below—
and if i wish the owl luck,

and I do,
what am I wishing for that other
soft life,
climbing through the snow?

what we must do,
I suppose,
is to hope the world
keeps its balance;

what we are to do, however,
with our hearts
waiting and watching—truly
I do not know.

The Journey
by Mary Oliver, from Dream Work 

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you 
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house 
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.

It was already late 
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company 
as you strode deeper and deeper into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life that you could save.


See also: Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden

The Same Old Story

Brookline Reservoir, March 18, 2012

Dogfish
by Mary Oliver, from Dream Work  

Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing
kept flickering in with the tide
and looking around.
Black as a fisherman's boot,
with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile
under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough
as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know
what a smile means,
don't you?

*

I wanted the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
I wanted
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,

whoever I was, I was

alive
for a little while.

*

It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don't know what they were,
huddled in the highest ripples
as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body
one gesture, one black sleeve
that could fit easily around
the bodies of three small fish.

*

Also I wanted
to be able to love. And we all know
how that one goes,
don't we?

Slowly

*

the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.

*

You don't want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don't want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it's the same old story - - -
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

*

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging toward them.

*

And probably,
if they don't waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

Like Us

Clam Washed Ashore by Anna-Marie Still

Clam
by Mary Oliver, from What Do We Know

Each one is a small life, but sometimes long, if its
place in the universe is not found out. Like us, they
have a heart and a stomach; they know hunger, and
probably a little satisfaction too. Do not mock them
for their gentleness, they have a muscle that loves
being alive. They pull away from the light. They pull
down. They hold themselves together. They refuse to
open.

But sometimes they lose their place and are tumbled
shoreward in a storm. Then they pant, they fill
with sand, they have no choice but must open the
smallest crack. Then the fire of the world touches
them. Perhaps, on such days, they too begin the
terrible effort of thinking, of wondering who, and
what, and why. If they can bury themselves again in
the sand they will. If not, they are sure to perish,
though not quickly. They also have resources beyond
the flesh; they also try very hard not to die.

The Only Life You Could Save

April 4, 2011

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.                                                                           

It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Avoiding Interesting Jobs

Inn at Honey Run, March 30, 2011 (Pat Schmitt) p schmidtt

"I consider myself kind of a reporter — one who uses words that are more like music and that have a choreography. I never think of myself as a poet; I just get up and write. 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, 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. Not that I didn't take some teaching jobs over the years — I just never took any interesting ones, because I didn't want to get interested. That's when I began to get up so early in the morning — you know I'm a 5 A.M. riser — so I could write for a couple of hours and then give my employer my very best second-rate energy...

You have to be in the world to understand what the spiritual is about, and you have to be spiritual in order to truly be able to accept what the world is about...I think about the spiritual a great deal. I like to think of myself as a praise poet....If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like."

~ Mary Oliver, from "Maria Shriver Interviews the Famously Private Poet Mary Oliver," O Magazine, March 9, 2011

Drifting

Driving to Kansas, November 24, 2010

What Is There Beyond Knowing
by Mary Oliver

What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me? I can’t

turn in any direction
but it’s there. I don’t mean

the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s
silk song, but the far-off

fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning

theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;

or time that’s always rushing forward,
or standing still

in the same—what shall I say—
moment.

What I know
I could put into a pack

as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,

important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained

and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly

to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.

But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass and the weeds.

What Matters

 Flying Snow by Tony Pratt

Snow Geese
by Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
to ask
of anything, or anyone,
yet it is ours,
and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.
One fall day I heard
above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was
a flock of snow geese, winging it
faster than the ones we usually see,
and, being the color of snow, catching the sun
so they were, in part at least, golden. I
held my breath
as we do
sometimes
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
but delightfully,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.
The geese
flew on,
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won't.
It doesn't matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.

An Unknowable Language

Visiting the Graveyard
by Mary Oliver, from Red Bird

When I think of death
it is a bright enough city,
and every year more faces there
are familiar

but not a single one
notices me,
though I long for it,
and when they talk together,

which they do
very quietly,
it's an unknowable language—
I can catch the tone

but understand not a single word—
and when I open my eyes
there's the mysterious field, the beautiful trees.
There are the stones.

Xoxocotlan Cemetery, 31 de octubrre de 2010

Xoxocotlan Cemetery, 31 de octubrre de 2010

Xoxocotlan Cemetery, 31 de octubrre de 2010

Xoxocotlan Cemetery, 31 de octubrre de 2010

The Theater of the Mind

Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks
by Mary Oliver, from What Do We Know

What Do We Know What is so utterly invisible
as tomorrow?
Not love,
not the wind,

not the inside of stone.
Not anything.
And yet, how often I'm fooled—
I'm wading along

in the sunlight—
and I'm sure I can see the fields and the ponds shining
days ahead—
I can see the light spilling

like a shower of meteors
into next week's trees,
and I plan to be there soon—
and, so far, I am

just that lucky,
my legs splashing
over the edge of darkness,
my heart on fire.

I don't know where
such certainty comes from—
the brave flesh
or the theater of the mind—

but if I had to guess
I would say that only
what the soul is supposed to be
could send us forth

with such cheer
as even the leaf must wear
as it unfurls
its fragrant body, and shines

against the hard possibility of stoppage—
which, day after day,
before such brisk, corpuscular belief,
shudders, and gives way.

[From Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac]