Mary Jane Oliver surrendered her mortal body to merge completely into amazement on January 18, 2019—she was 83 years old. I am one of her countless admirers and I suppose that like me there are many of us still moved to tears by her poetry even after reading it for decades. I hope you might indulge me this urge to share a few words of gratitude and praise for the many precious gifts she has left us. I fell in love with her poetry after hearing “Wild Geese” for the first time at a mindfulness retreat 25 years ago.
It’s wonderful that her poetry has won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award as well a Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement –but, it’s it hard for me to imagine that any of these rewards as prestigious as they may be, were at the top of her dream list. Her ecstasy is palatable in far more simple prizes, like watching a grasshopper eating sugar out of the palm of her hand. Her reverence for life itself as it’s expressed in the natural world flowed through her pen into her verse as she wandered enraptured in the marvels and wonders she found in the pristine living meadows and fields she loved. All the wonders of nature were sacred to her and this reverence and awe imbues her poetry with the numinous awe she felt as she sought solace and peace in the wonders of the natural world in Cape Cod.
Her exquisite and timeless poems remind us how deeply and completely that we are interconnected…
A simple grasshopper was all it required for her to rise into the heavens and know her place in the family of things. Her exquisite and timeless poems remind us how deeply and completely that we are interconnected not only with one another but with the earth, the water the fire and air, the moon and sun, and all other living things from flowers to bears and the tiniest of insects. Where are there more poignant questions in all literature than “Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Fragments and stanzas of her poems come to me in my meditation practice and when I lead mindfulness practices. Even more come to me as I wander through the meadows and trees of my Northern California forest home. I sometimes think of her when I lie in bed and hear the wind whistling through nearby branches or the creek rumbling in the canyon below me and I’m certain she too loved listening to the ecstatic rapture in millions of small frogs singing their hearts out in meadow ponds she found! I am not alone in these steady correspondences—I know from her verse that Mary Oliver also found joy and transcendence in these things and if you share my love for her poetry you do too.
In the end, who but Mary herself can better say what she wanted all of us to know about her life?
When Death Comes
By 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 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.