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Academy of American Poets: Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver Index Page
Mary Oliver was born September 10, 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio. As a teenager, she lived for a brief while in the home of the recently-deceased Edna St. Vincent Millay, where she helped Millay's sister Norma organize the papers Millay left behind. Oliver briefly attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College in the mid-1950's, but did not receive a degree. She has resided in Provincetown, Massachusetts for over forty years. Her late partner, artist Molly Malone Cook, served as Oliver's literary agent until her death in 2005.
An intense and joyful observer of the natural world, Oliver is often compared to Whitman and Thoreau. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts: shore birds, water snakes, the phases of the moon. Maxine Kumin calls Oliver "a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms" and "an indefatigable guide to the natural world." Honors Oliver has received include the National Book Award (1992), the Pulitzer Prize (1984), and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1980).
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
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
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.
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.
In the afternoon I watched
the she-bear; she was looking
for the secret bin of sweetness -
honey, that the bees store
in the trees’ soft caves.
Black block of gloom, she climbed down
tree after tree and shuffled on
through the woods. And then
she found it! The honey-house deep
as heartwood, and dipped into it
among the swarming bees - honey and comb
she lipped and tongued and scooped out
in her black nails, until
maybe she grew full, or sleepy, or maybe
a little drunk, and sticky
down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.
I saw her let go of the branches,
I saw her lift her honeyed muzzle
into the leaves, and her thick arms,
as though she would fly -
an enormous bee
all sweetness and wings -
down into the meadows, the perfections
of honeysuckle and roses and clover -
to float and sleep in the sheer nets
swaying from flower to flower
day after shining day.
Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith
I listen and look
under the sun's brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can't hear
anything, I can't see anything -
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,
nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker -
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.
And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing -
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,
the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet -
all of it
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.
And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt
swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn's beautiful body
is sure to be there.
in the green field
were spinning and tossing
the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing
better to do
I mean this
a long time ago,
an old couple
opened their door
to two strangers
it soon appeared,
not men at all,
It is my favorite story--
how the old couple
had almost nothing to give
but their willingness
to be attentive--
but for this alone
the gods loved them
and blessed them--
when they rose
out of their mortal bodies,
like a million particles of water
from a fountain,
swept into all the corners
of the cottage,
and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
but still they asked for nothing
but the difficult life
which they had already.
And the gods smiled, as they vanished,
clapping their great wings.
Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
whatever it was I said
I would be doing--
I was standing
at the edge of the field--
I was hurrying
through my own soul,
opening its dark doors--
I was leaning out;
I was listening.
Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
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
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,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won't.
It doesn't matter.
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.
I used to imagine him
coming from his house, like Merlin
strolling with important gestures
through the garden
where everything grows so thickly,
where birds sing, little snakes lie
on the boughs, thinking of nothing
but their own good lives,
where petals float upward,
their colors exploding,
and trees open their moist
pages of thunder -
it has happened every summer for years.
But now I know more
about the great wheel of growth,
and decay, and rebirth,
and know my vision for a falsehood.
Now I see him coming from the house -
I see him on his knees,
cutting away the diseased, the superfluous,
coaxing the new,
know that the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience -
yet willing to labor like that
on the mortal wheel.
Oh, what good it does the heart
to know it isn’t magic!
Like the human child I am
I rush to imitate -
I watch him as he bends
among the leaves and vines
to hook some weed or other;
I think of him there
raking and trimming, stirring up
those sheets of fire
between the smothering weights of earth,
the wild and shapeless air.
And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunches leaves up
through the chilling mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below, stubborn
and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again - a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.
The Buddha’s Last Instruction
"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,
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.
The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.
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.
Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
Climbing the Chagrin River
the green river,
with snagheaps, where turtles
sun themselves--we push
through the falling
striped warm and cold
through the black flanks
of wet rocks--we wade
and white pine--climb
stone steps into
the timeless castles
of emerald eddies,
cold as ice tumbling
out of a white flow--
flying off rocks,
frivolous and lustrous,
skirting the secret pools--
full of the yellow hair
of last year's leaves
where grizzled fish
hang halfway down,
like tarnished swords,
while around them
nails of light
in the loose
At Blackwater Pond
At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?
A Dream of Trees
There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company.
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.
There is a thing in me still dreams of trees,
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.
I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?
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