When I heard yesterday that the poet Mary Oliver had died, I surprised myself by immediately starting to cry. It wasn’t a small, singular tear or two; these were real tears, shed out of real sadness, as if I had known the woman personally, instead of being one of millions who admired her from afar. I went to my bookshelf and pulled out a book of hers; it fell open to a well-visited page.
You do not have to be good.
For someone who loves words, I don’t know much about poetry. There is just one poem that I know entirely by heart, that I can deliver with no notice at all, and that’s “Wild Geese”. Many years ago, it became a mantra I’d recite to myself while training for a marathon and desperately trying to figure out the course of my life. During that period, it would come to me in dreams, would often be playing on a loop in the back of my mind while other thoughts filled the front.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
Even now, it’s something that I find I say to myself, quietly, in unexpected moments. As recently as last week, I shared that poem with someone who I think may have needed it in the way I needed it years ago. I’ve printed it and written it out for others more times than I can count.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
When I met the man who is now my husband, I gave him a copy. To me, knowing that he could appreciate that poem, that he could begin to grasp what it meant to me, meant that he might be someone who could understand me, too.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Yet “Wild Geese” was only the first poem of Mary Oliver’s that I fell in love with; over time, I discovered others that resonated so deeply that I often became lost while reading them.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
“Why I Wake Early” held lines that I’d find emerging as I stood by the ocean, watching the words themselves rise as clearly as the sun. The last words of “In Blackwater Woods” captured what I know about life, wrapped it up in a net, and still has not let it go.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
“The Journey” became another living, breathing thing, a work of art that I’d share with those I knew who were despairing of their decisions or their lives. “Sunrise” took my breath away, again and again.
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
“The Summer Day” gave shape to my understanding of nature as my temple; “When Death Comes” lends me courage to live the way that I want to, without apology or reservation; “The Sun” reminds me of the miracles that surround me every single day.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Once, while in graduate school, I was lucky enough to hear Mary Oliver speak. I was one of hundreds, in a crowded auditorium, the woman herself tiny on the stage at the front of the room. She read “Wild Geese,” and I was not the only one who wept. Afterwards, she sat at a table, and I filed past her, along with many others whose faces she would not remember, whose names she would not know.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
There were no words I could give her, besides those expressing my thanks, and so that’s what I offered. I expect that I’ll turn to her poems for the rest of my life, as they convince me yet again of the salvation found in art and words and poetry and music. In our bruised world, that’s no small task.
In so very many ways, Mary Oliver did much more than simply visit this world. I stand forever in gratitude.
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.