A Reflection on Mary Oliver

mary oliverThis piece was developed during the third Bartimaeus Institute Online (BIO) Study Cohort 2017-2018.  These pieces will eventually be published in a Women’s Breviary collection.  For more information regarding the BIO Study Cohort go here.  

By Kristen Snow

Mary Oliver spends her life offering her view of the world as a gift to anyone, and everyone. She has lived a poor and simple life, not seeing the interest in wealth or possessions, but finding her sustenance in the fruits of the ocean and the earth. Her spirituality and belief in the Creator is deep and wide. She is not framed in the specificities of theology or religion, choosing to see the reality of God in the natural world and through the words of Rumi, a similarly gifted seer. Her poems have reached millions.

Oliver was born in a 1935 in Ohio, her childhood was lonely and wrought with family strife and abuse. To cope with this heavy existence she sought the companionship of fellow poets, the writing of Whitman, Emerson and Millay. Her first collection of work No Voyage and Other Poems was published in 1965 when she was 28. Since then she has continued to produce work, publishing every two or three years, her most recent work Felicity was released in 2015. Spending her life outside she developed a unique and deeply connected relationship with the natural world. She could not help but see the beauty in the earth, and this gift of sight saved her life.

In 1958 she met her longtime partner Molly Malone Cook. Cook was an inspired, avante-garde gallery and bookstore owner, writer and gifted photographer. Her and Mary shared their life together for over forty years, offering a combination of their views of the world through lens and pen until Cook’s death in 2005. Snapshots of this life together can be found in Our World, a collection of photographs, poems and essays compiled and written by Oliver as a memoir and tribute to her love.

While Mary could have spent her life as a hermit, content to commune with the moss and muskrats, she shared her self, by writing, teaching and mentoring. Instead of allowing the pain and trauma of her childhood to crush her, she opened to the natural world to heal her spirit and teach her how to see both pain and beauty in all. I believe this is why her writing is so magnetic to so many, she decimates loneliness by offering her liminal, non-binary view of the world. A fellow poet and writer, Maxine Kumin describes Mary’s work in this way: “(Mary’s poetry) stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.” This statement rings true, verbalizing what is so valuable and entrancing about Mary’s poetry. She paints a vivid and striking landscape, calling her audience in to see the world as she does. Inviting the participant to weave their own experience with the narrative on the page, giving them the brush, to add their own color. Oliver opens up space to see God in the infinite mystery of creation, she calls attention to the tiny motion of a grasshopper’s song to the vastness of the ocean tides. She is a powerful example of the truth and value in Watershed Discipleship’s challenge to know your land. Her poems are steeped with descriptions of the smallest details of the flora and fauna in the Cape Cod watershed. She communes with the water, seeks solace and celebration in the trees, and openly sits in the mysteries of existence. This is where her work gains potency, her deep embrace of the mystery of life and acceptance of pain and extancy is tandem are transcendent. She calls these things out of the earth into the language of modern day America. She sees God and the sky in the slow death of a seagull, an invitation to choose life over death in the sunrise. As she has aged her poems become more outwardly spiritual, unabashedly questioning the need to have it all figured out. Her poem I Wake Close to Morning is a perfect example:

I Wake Close To Morning

Why do people keep asking to see

God’s identity papers?

When the darkness opening into morning

Is more than enough?

Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.

Think of Sheba approaching

The kingdom of Solomon

Do you think she had to ask,

“Is this the place?”

Mary encourages the reader to open their eyes, let go of their questions and embrace the wild, world around them. Rejecting the push to conform, make money, destory the earth, she radically moves toward inclusion of God, Human, Animal, Sky and Earth. Her narrative is one of closeness, a quiet but powerful call to listen to the created being you are, buried far below what has been influenced by societal constructs and capitalism. She is a mystic, a prophet, a seer of the kingdom of heaven on earth.






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