The day Mary Oliver died, I read a piece in The Atlantic about existential therapy. “It was a bit like coming across a line in a poem or a quote in a book that you relate to on an eerily intimate level — something of your most personal experience mirrored back to you, and you realize all at once that someone else has had the very same thought,” writes Faith Hill of her first existential therapy session. “Suddenly and certainly, if only for that moment, you are a little less alone.”
Like an existential therapist, Mary Oliver was a guide to the emotional landscape of life, someone who saw the ways that all internal opposites — loneliness and companionship, thrill and mourning, love and apathy — share an intimate inner boundary. Oliver was never afraid to write about difficult subjects; fear and death are constant companions to her narrators. The frank familiarity with which she approached life makes her poetry a relief to read. Like many of her readers, I feel I knew Oliver and that she, in some way, knew me. To have one’s emotions cataloged by a stranger is one of poetry’s most shocking pleasures, and I’ve never been rewarded in this way more frequently than while reading Oliver’s work.
As a poet of the natural world, reading Mary Oliver feels particularly urgent in 2019. Over the past year, it has become clear that the worst-case scenario for climate change is upon us. When it snowed for the first time a few days ago, magical and unusually late for Michigan, I was almost relieved when my boots soaked through. In our rapidly shifting world, thinking about nature on Oliver’s terms is both a comfort and call to action. If she had been walking with me through the snow, I might have told her about the rabbits I used to see on the lawn in early fall. She would have wondered aloud about their contentedness, their warm home.
Mary Oliver noticed, and out of that noticing grew a commitment to the details that populate life. There are many things to be admired about the way Oliver committed her observations to the page. Her poetry was unpretentious and clean, messy when the circumstances demand it. Meaty and delicate. I appreciate the way she went inside intuition, asking us to be within ourselves and outside our limitations at once. Her poetry feels uniquely true; to read Mary Oliver is to be seen.
In March 1986 she published one of my favorite poems, “Every Morning.” She writes: “A craziness we so far have no name for— / all this I read in the papers, / in the sunlight, / I read with my cold, sharp eyes.”
“A craziness we so far have no name for”: This could describe the past year perfectly. Oliver is not an overtly political poet, but her poems suggest a philosophy of respect that implies a theory of everything, including politics: Be kind and present. Be cognizant of the ripples engendered by your actions, intentions and emotions.
In “Wild Geese,” she writes: “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 “Invitation,” speaking of goldfinches, Oliver writes: “It could mean something. / It could mean everything. / It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote, / You must change your life.”
We were assigned Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” for my journalism class last week. I like to think about Mary Oliver reading Rilke at home in Provincetown or Manhattan or Florida, surrounded by her books and her partner, the late photographer Mary Malone Cook. I like to split the screen: She’s on one side reading Rilke at her kitchen table, and I’m on the other side, reading at a desk way up on the fifth floor of Hatcher, where the windows face the gray expanse of State Street. We both think about devotion.
Like any good therapist, Oliver never answers our questions directly. Instead, her poetry entrusts us with the materials that accomodate an understanding of why our uncertainties cannot always be resolved. Oliver has left us with a body of work that endures. She was lucky: She could say what she needed to about the world. We are lucky: We get to read it.
“There are so many stories, / more beautiful than answers,” Oliver writes in “Snake.” What remains of Mary Oliver’s life are not answers but stories: hers and our own, and the understanding that the distinction between the two is decidedly unstable.
I was thinking about Oliver three days ago as I walked through the Law Quad on my way home. The lights of the library were burning orange strips into the dark sky. I wanted her to tell this night back to me, distilled. She would have been amazed.