the soul at last :: mary oliver

The Lord’s terrifying kindness has come to me.

It was only a small silvery thing—say a piece of silver cloth, or a thousand spider webs woven together, or a small handful of aspen leaves, with their silver backs shimmering. And it came leaping out of the closed coffin; it flew into the air, it danced snappingly around the church rafters; it vanished through the ceiling.

I spoke their, briefly, of the loved one gone. I gazed at the people in the pews, some of them weeping. I knew I must, someday, write this down.

the mango :: mary oliver

One evening
I met the mango.
At first there were four or five of them
in a bowl.
They looked like stones you find
in the rivers of Pennsylvania
when the waters are low.
That size, and almost round.
Mossy green.
But this was a rich house, and clever too.
After salmon and salads,
mangoes for everyone appeared on blue plates,
each one cut in half and scored
and shoved forward from its rind, like an orange flower,
cubist and juicy.
When I began to eat
things happened.
All through the sweetness I heard voices,
men and women talking about something—
another country, and trouble.
It wasn’t my language, but I understood enough.
Jungles, and death. The ships
leaving the harbors, their holds
filled with mangoes.
Children, brushing the flies away
from their hot faces
as they worked in the fields.
Men, and guns.
The voices all ran together
so that I tasted them in the taste of the mango,
a sharp gravel in the flesh.
Later, in the kitchen, I saw the stones
like torn-out tongues
embedded in the honeyed centers.
They were talking among themselves—
family news,
a few lines of a song

just around the house, early in the morning :: mary oliver

Though I have been scorned for it,
let me never be afraid to use the word beautiful.
For within is the shining leaf
and the blossoms of the geranium at the window.
And the eyes of the happy puppy as he wakes.
The colors of the old and beloved afghan lying
by itself, on the couch, in the morning sun.
The hummingbird’s nest perched now in a
corner of the bookshelf, in front of so many
books of so many colors.
The two poached eggs. The buttered toast.
The ream of brand-new paper just opened,
white as a block of snow.
The typewriter humming, ready to go.

lines written in the days of growing darkness :: mary oliver

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

percy (2002-2009) :: mary oliver

This—I said to Percy when I had left
    our bed and gone
out onto the living room couch where
he found me apparently doing nothing—this
   is called thinking.
It’s something people do,
not being entirely children of the earth,
   like a dog or a tree or a flower.

His eyes questioned such an activity.
“Well, okay,” he said. “If you say so. Whatever
it is. Actually
   I like kissing better.”

And next to me,
tucked down his curly head
and, sweet as a flower, slept.

moments :: mary oliver

There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

starlings in winter :: mary oliver

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

knife :: mary oliver

Something
just now
moved through my heart
like the thinnest of blades
as that red-tail pumped
once with its great wings
and flew above the gray, cracked
rock wall.
It wasn’t
about the bird, it was
something about the way
stone stays
mute and put, whatever
goes flashing by.
Sometimes,
when I sit like this, quiet,
all the dreams of my blood
and all outrageous divisions of time
seem ready to leave,
to slide out of me.
Then, I imagine, I would never move.
By now
the hawk has flown five miles
at least,
dazzling whoever else has happened
to look up.
I was dazzled. But that
wasn’t the knife.
It was the sheer, dense wall
of blind stone
without a pinch of hope
or a single unfulfilled desire
sponging up and reflecting,
so brilliantly,
as it has for centuries,
the sun’s fire.

lines written in the days of growing darkness :: mary oliver

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

the place i want to get back to :: mary oliver

is where
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
the darkness

and first light
two deer
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me

they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting

on the ground like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;

and so they came
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way

I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward

and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring to me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years

I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can’t be repeated.

If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named
Gratitude.

the summer day :: mary oliver

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?

in blackwater woods :: mary oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

the poet with his face in his hands :: mary oliver

You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn’t need any more of that sound.

So if you’re going to do it and can’t
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can’t
hold it in, at least go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

when death comes :: mary oliver

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 his 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 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 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.

percy speaks while i am doing taxes :: mary oliver

First of all, I do not want to be doing this.
Second of all, Percy does not want me
      to be doing this.
bent over the desk like a besieged person
      with a dull pencil and innumerable lists
           of numbers.

Outside the water is blue, the sky is clear,
      the tide rising.
Percy, I say, this has to be done. This is
      essential. I’ll be finished eventually.

“Keep me in your thoughts,” he replies. “Just because
      I can’t count to ten doesn’t mean
I don’t remember yesterday, or anticipate today.
      I’ll give you ten more minutes,” and he does.
     Then shouts—who could resist—his
          favorite words: Let’s go!

hum :: mary oliver

What is this dark hum among the roses?
The bees have gone simple, sipping,
that’s all. What did you expect? Sophistication?
They’re small creatures and they are
filling their bodies with sweetness, how could they not
moan in happiness? The little
worker bee lives, I have read, about three weeks.
Is that long? Long enough, I suppose, to understand
that life is a blessing. I have found them-haven’t you?—
stopped in the very cups of the flowers, their wings
a little tattered-so much flying about, to the hive,
then out into the world, then back, and perhaps dancing,
should the task be to be a scout-sweet, dancing bee.
I think there isn’t anything in this world I don’t
admire. If there is, I don’t know what it is. I
haven’t met it yet. Nor expect to. The bee is small,
and since I wear glasses, so I can see the traffic and
read books, I have to
take them off and bend close to study and
understand what is happening. It’s not hard, it’s in fact
as instructive as anything I have ever studied. Plus, too,
it’s love almost too fierce to endure, the bee
nuzzling like that into the blouse
of the rose. And the fragrance, and the honey, and of course
the sun, the purely pure sun, shining, all the while, over
all of us.

sometimes :: mary oliver

1.

Something came up
out of the dark.
It wasn’t anything I had ever seen before.
It wasn’t an animal
or a flower,
unless it was both.

Something came up out of the water,
a head the size of a cat
but muddy and without ears.
I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.

But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement.

2.

Sometime
melancholy leaves me breathless…

3.

Water from the heavens! Electricity from the source!
Both of them mad to create something!

The lighting brighter than any flower.
The thunder without a drowsy bone in its body.

4.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

5.
Two or three times in my life I discovered love.
Each time it seemed to solve everything.
Each time it solved a great many things
but not everything.
Yet left me as grateful as if it had indeed, and
thoroughly, solved everything.

6.

God, rest in my heart
and fortify me,
take away my hunger for answers,
let the hours play upon my body

like the hands of my beloved.
Let the cathead appear again-
the smallest of your mysteries,
some wild cousin of my own blood probably-
some cousin of my own wild blood probably,
in the black dinner-bowl of the pond.

7.

Death waits for me, I know it, around
one corner or another.
This doesn’t amuse me.
Neither does it frighten me.

After the rain, I went back into the field of sunflowers.
It was cool, and I was anything but drowsy.
I walked slowly, and listened

to the crazy roots, in the drenched earth, laughing and growing.

the ponds :: mary oliver

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them —

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided —
and that one wears an orange blight —
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away —
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing —
that the light is everything — that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

what I have learned so far :: mary oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindess begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

the buddha’s last instruction :: mary oliver

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire –
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

mysteries, yes :: mary oliver

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

work, sometimes :: mary oliver

I was sad all day, and why not. There I was, books piled
on both sides of the table, paper stacked up, words
falling off my tongue.

The robins had been a long time singing, and now it
was beginning to rain.

What are we sure of? Happiness isn’t a town on a map,
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work
ongoing. Which is not likely to be the trifling around
with a poem.

Then it began raining hard, and the flowers in the yard
were full of lively fragrance.

You have had days like this, no doubt. And wasn’t it
wonderful, finally, to leave the room? Ah, what a
moment!

As for myself, I swung the door open. And there was
the wordless, singing world. And I ran for my life.

owl in the black oaks :: mary oliver

If a lynx, that plush fellow,
climbed down a
tree and left behind
his face, his thick neck,

and, most of all, the lamps of his eyes,
there you would have it—
the owl,
the very owl

who haunts these trees,
choosing from the swash of branches
the slight perches and ledges
of his acrobatics.

Almost every day
I spy him out
among the knots and the burls,
looking down

at his huge feet,
at the path curving through the trees,
at whatever is coming up the hill
toward him,

and, though I’m never ready—
though something unspeakably cold
always drops through my heart—
it is a moment

as lavish as is fearful—
there is such pomp
in the gown of feathers
and the lit silk of the eyes—

surely he is one of the mighty kings
of this world.
Sometimes, as I keep coming,
he simply flies away—

and sometimes the whole body
tilts forward, and the beak opens,
clean and wonderful,
like a cup of gold.

poppies :: mary oliver

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—
deep, blue night?

I want to write something so simply :: mary oliver

I want to write something
so simply
about love
or about pain
that even
as you are reading
you feel it
and as you read
you keep feeling it
and though it be my story
it will be common,
though it be singular
it will be known to you
so that by the end
you will think—
no, you will realize—
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your heart
had been saying.

summer story :: mary oliver

When the hummingbird
sinks its face
into the trumpet vine
and the funnels

of the blossoms,
and the tongue
leaps out
and throbs,

I am scorched
to realize once again
how many small, available things
are in the world

that aren’t
pieces of gold
or power–
that nobody owns

or could buy even
for a hillside of money–
that just
float about the world,

or drift over the fields,
or into the gardens,
and into the tents of the vines
and how here I am

spending my time,
as the saying goes,
watching until the watching turns into feeling
so that I feel I am myself

a small bird
with a terrible hunger
with a thin beak probing and dipping
and a heart that races so fast

it is only a heartbeat ahead of breaking
and I am the hunger and the assuagement
and also I am the leaves and the blossoms,
and, like them, I am full of delight and shaking

white-eyes :: mary oliver

In winter
      all the singing is in
            the tops of the trees
                  where the wind-bird

with its white eyes
      shoves and pushes
            among the branches.
                  Like any of us

he wants to go to sleep,
      but he’s restless—
            he has an idea,
                  and slowly it unfolds

from under his beating wings
      as long as he stays awake.
            But his big, round music, after all,
                  is too breathy to last.

So, it’s over.
      In the pine-crown
            he makes his nest,
                  he’s done all he can.

I don’t know the name of this bird,
      I only imagine his glittering beak
            tucked in a white wing
                  while the clouds—

which he has summoned
      from the north—
            which he has taught
                  to be mild, and silent—

thicken, and begin to fall
      into the world below
            like stars, or the feathers
            of some unimaginable bird

that loves us,
      that is asleep now, and silent—
            that has turned itself
                  into snow.

wild geese :: mary oliver

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.
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 geese, 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.