This is a guest commentary by Bethany Dixon, who is a writer and pianist living in Ithaca. She spends her days working in a tower of books at Olin Library and is the baker and owner at Pies & Pinups.
Mary Oliver, beloved poet and celebrant of the natural world, died at the age of 83 on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, at her home in Florida.
Mary Oliver has left us. The author of more than 15 collections of poetry and essays, she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, the National Book Award in 1993, and the Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement in 1998. Oliver spent over 40 years of her life with her partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Oliver spent her days “waking up in the morning and being outside in this wild landscape with your notebook in your hand and walking” (from an interview with Krista Tippet).
Mary Oliver has left us. Now, we are left to find answers to the questions she asked so gently, like this title of this eulogy. When I heard the news, I heard a question ring out in my head as clear as anything: “Are you willing to do the work? Are you willing to listen?” She has left a trail of light in her wake, a “scalding, aortal light – in which we are washed and washed out of our bones.”
In the poem where this line appears, “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field,” Oliver navigates a familiar poetic terrain with her eternally patient and far-seeing eye. Her writing is an unfaltering vow to commit the natural world to memory, to honor it through speech.
In every poem, Oliver guides us through a similar journey. She begins with a sort of reverent blazon, a catalog of her surroundings. Always, there are animals – breathing, soft, winged, clawed, set in motion. Always, the sky and the earth in all their changeable moods. There are bodies of water running through and around her words. And most striking of all, as Goethe wrote, “there is strong shadow where there is much light.”
The next step in her poems often turns inward. In “Spring,” a black bear becomes a meditation on this dazzling darkness…her wordlessness/her perfect love. One of her best-known poems, “The Summer Day,” moves seamlessly from a grasshopper, to a prayer, to the shattering question: Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life? A flock of “Wild Geese” allows her to tell us something I once desperately needed to hear: You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
And then somehow, we have stepped out of our bodies again, and we are marveling at the geese, the tiny grasshopper, the majestic black bear, the whole world through Oliver’s eyes. We are not the same as when we began the poem.
Mary Oliver didn’t waste time cloaking her amazement in anything less than pure joy. Did this make her less of a serious poet in the eyes of the world? Undoubtedly. But it didn’t seem to bother her – perhaps because her life’s work was to see the world through her own eyes. As she wrote in “Don’t Hesitate,” Joy is not made to be a crumb.
So please. Don’t hesitate. Learn to break open into joy in this broken world. Don’t be fooled into dismissing happiness as simple. Answer the questions you set out to ask. Be willing to listen. Be willing to do the work.
Today, I went into Autumn Leaves and found the only Mary Oliver book on the poetry shelf. I opened it at random, asking, how could someone so beautiful disappear? This is what I read – from “Sleeping in the Forest.”
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
A Mary Oliver poetry tribute is taking place from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9 in the Ezra Cornell Reading Room at the Tompkins County Public Library. Attendees are invited to bring their favorite Mary Oliver poem to read aloud and make comments if desired. The event is co-hosted by TCPL staff and former Tompkins County Poet Laureate Zee Zahava.
Featured image: © Rachel Giese Brown