Friday, January 25, 2019

The Living Dead

 ~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

Five A.M. in the Pinewoods

I'd seen 
their hoofprints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night

under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I

got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under

the blue trees, shyly
they stepped
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even

nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.

This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
one of them—I swear it!—

would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the
pine needles like

the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,

I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019)
from House of Light (Boston, Beacon Press, 1990)

This is my personal favourite Mary Oliver poem – though they are all wonderful and I love every poem of hers I've ever seen or heard. I first discovered her work when I found House of Light in my (then) local library many years ago, probably around 1993. I contemplated stealing the book! As a former librarian, and someone brought up to consider books sacred, you may understand what a huge departure it was for me even to think of such a thing, and how powerful the cause.

I didn't give in to such a nefarious impulse, but always meant to buy the book. I couldn't find it in Australia at that time; shops probably didn't keep it very long after the publication date. Only after she died I finally bethought myself to look on Amazon, and now have it at last, in Kindle. I love it as much as ever. Meantime, of course, I have been delighted by much more of her work. Thank God she was prolific, and has left us a wonderful legacy!

So many of us have had a love affair with Oliver's translucent work – work profound yet completely accessible. The day the world received the news of her death (one week ago, the day after it happened) my son and his family were visiting from interstate. We had a happy day together – yet all the time, in backdrop, was my consciousness of loss. All over facebook, other poets expressed shock and mourning too. So did many non-poets who also loved her poetry. She was undoubtedly the most popular contemporary poet in the English-speaking world, deservedly so. After her death, I read that her work was sometimes belittled by critics because of that popularity, as if it equated with a lack of literary merit – to which I can only say, 'Nonsense!' The apparent simplicity does not mean it wasn't meticulously crafted. She herself is famous for having opined that poetry shouldn't be 'fancy', and so obviously she set out to make sure hers wasn't. The right decision, clearly.  Yet she had a distinctively beautiful poetic voice, her simplicity and clarity far from banal. Like other greats, most notably Shakespeare, some of her more striking lines and phrases are widely remembered and quoted out of context. They are striking both for their powerful sentiments and the beauty of their wording.

She was primarily a nature poet, has been described as an ambassador for the environment, and stated in one poem (Messenger) that loving the world was her work. The link on her name, above, leads to her Wikipedia entry – if anyone needs to read it. I think it is well-known that she was American, a Pulitzer prize-winner, and a recipient of the National Book Award; that she lived a long time in Provincetown, Massachusetts with her partner, the photographer Mary Malone Cook, who pre-deceased her in 2005; and that her influences were Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Rumi, Hafiz, Shelley and Keats.

There have been a number of obituaries, of course, which also give details of her life and work. You can find them here. If you simply Google her name, or 'Mary Oliver poems' you'll find a lot of material too. And of course her books are available through Amazon.

You can also find many examples of her reading her work and occasionally even being interviewed about it (though she seldom gave interviews) on YouTube. This is one I enjoyed:

Though she is greatly mourned, I'm sure everyone is thankful that her poetry remains with us. This one (the final poem in House of Light) seems appropriate to share with you just now, too:

White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field
Coming down 
out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, 
or a buddha with wings,
it was beautiful 
and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings—
five feet apart—and the grabbing 
thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys 
of the snow—

and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, 
like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows—
so I thought:
maybe death 
isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light 
wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary 
of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes, 
not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river 
that is without the least dapple or shadow—
that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright).

Both poems reproduced here are set out as they are in the book.


  1. What beautiful Mary Oliver poems you shared, and what a wonderful tribute you wrote, Rosemary! Yes, we must be thankful that her poem remains with us, though she is no longer walking on this earth. Indeed she was the most popular contemporary poet, and this honor was definitely well deserved. Thank you for this feature, Rosemary, and for the Oliver poems you shared.

    1. I think it would be very hard to find an Oliver poem that was not beautiful! I wanted to avoid the most oft-quoted, in the hope of giving some readers something new – but I'm sure it would also be impossible to find one that was completely unknown.

  2. Oh, Rosemary, how I drank in those horses in the snow, and "a poem about the world that is ours, or could be." I had not come across it before, and it took my breath away. I think of her as that white owl, "so much light, wrapping itself around" her. She leaves the light of her words behind. This week ten of us gathered in Tofino to share our favourites of her poems and pay homage to a Master, who saw the world's beauty and helped us see it, too. Thank you for this wonderful tribute. I drank in every word.

    1. Horses? Yes, I suppose they might be. I always imagined them as deer. But then, there is also a suggestion of unicorns.

    2. Oh I just reread it and see they could be deer.......somehow I saw white horses, likely because I have spent so many years with horses, and they approach us in much the way that the poet describes......

    3. Then they probably were horses. (I have had little to do with either horses or deer, so can't really tell.) But I rather like to think they were actually unicorns.

  3. At our evening gathering, it was mentioned that Mary was criticized because her work was so accessible and we all agreed that is what we love about her - we opined that some people in literary circles perhaps looked through their critical pince nez's in order to feel lofty, and that maybe they don't understand poems given accolades (but whose meaning totally escapes the reader) either, but dare not admit it. Smiles. Mary's poems shine with the clarity of the light she saw shining through everything. I so admire her and am thankful she left such a huge body of work. By the way, have any of you read her book Dog Songs, a book of poems to her beloved dog Percy? It makes me consider putting together a small book about Pup....I have done a gigantic one, but that was too expensive to do more than once. Heaven knows, I have written reams about him.

    1. I have resisted the Dog Songs for fear she would become uncharacteristically sentimental. But perhaps I should give it a chance. (Your Pup poems – those I have seen – are always wonderful.)

    2. Her dog poems are wonderful. You will love them.

  4. I am thrilled, though not surprised, that you chose to commemorate Mary Oliver today. I love that you describe her as translucent - that is how I felt her. Her simplicity had such depth. I have read many of her books and consider her one of my favorites. If ever I wished - I do wish I could write like her.

  5. Five A.M. in the Pinewoods
    is a meditation to me, one f my absolute favorites. Thank you for dedicating this week's blog to Mary Oliver--though seeing her under "The Living Dead" startled me. I've been mourning her for a week, so what about this title is so hard?

    1. I guess it is hard to believe she is really gone, even though we know. It seemed she would be with us forever. Well, the poetry will be.

  6. I am not easily upset when someone famous died but Mary has been the one for sure. She has touched me deeply with her poetry and I enjoyed reading these beautiful poems

    1. Truly famous, yet she was never part of celebrity culture, nor did fame turn her head. She seemed always very clear about herself and her work.

  7. Thank you for the lovely tribute of Mary Oliver. Her words are so moving in their simplicity.

  8. I very much enjoyed this post, Rosemary. Your introduction to Mary Oliver's work was a charming backstory. Your temptation to steal her book brought a smile … that a former librarian should find herself grappling with such an impulse to read more … speaks volumes about the splendiferous appeal of her work.

    I also appreciated the interview. I believe it is the first time I have heard Mary Oliver's voice - and it floated over lines from many of her pieces that I am familiar with.

    A wonderful share! Thanks so much!


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