Mary Oliver


- 1986 The spirit likes to dress up like this: ten fingers, ten toes, shoulders, and all the rest at night in the black branches, in the morning in the blue branches of the world. It could float, of course, but would rather plumb rough matter. Airy and shapeless thing, it needs the metaphor of the body, lime and appetite, the oceanic fluids; it needs the body's world, instinct and imagination and the dark hug of time, sweetness and tangibility, to be understood, to be more than pure light that burns where no one is-- so it enters us-- in the morning shines from brute comfort like a stitch of lightning; and at night lights up the deep and wondrous drownings of the body like a star.


- 1986 You are the dark song of the morning; serious and slow, you shave, you dress, you descend the stairs in your public clothes and drive away, you become the wise and powerful one who makes all the days possible in the world. But you were also the red song in the night, stumbling through the house to the child's bed, to the damp rose of her body, leaving your bitter taste. And forever those nights snarl the delicate machinery of the days. When the child's mother smiles you see on her cheekbones a truth you will never confess; and you see how the child grows-- timidly, crouching in corners. Sometimes in the wide night you hear the most mournful cry, a ravished and terrible moment. In your dreams she's a tree that will never come to leaf-- in your dreams she's a watch you dropped on the dark stones till no one could gather the fragments-- in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, and dreams do not lie.

Wild Geese

- 1986 You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. 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.

The Journey

- 1986 One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice-- though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. "Mend my life!" each voice cried. But you didn't stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world determined to do the only thing you could do-- determined to save the only life you could save.

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds. I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed, nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts, and they flowed light as moths among the branches of the perfect trees. All night I heard the small kingdoms breathing around me, the insects, and the birds who do their work in the darkness. All night 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.

The Summer Day

- 1990 Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean-- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?


-1994 This morning two mockingbirds in the green field were spinning and tossing the white ribbons of their songs into the air. I had nothing better to do than listen. I mean this seriously. In Greece, a long time ago, an old couple opened their door to two strangers who were, it soon appeared, not men at all, but gods. It is my favorite story-- how the old couple had almost nothing to give but their willingness to be attentive-- but for this alone the gods loved them and blessed them-- when they rose out of their mortal bodies, like a million particles of water from a fountain, the light swept into all the corners of the cottage, and the old couple, shaken with understanding, bowed down-- but still they asked for nothing but the difficult life which they had already. And the gods smiled, as they vanished, clapping their great wings. Wherever it was I was supposed to be this morning-- whatever it was I said I would be doing-- I was standing at the edge of the field-- I was hurrying through my own soul, opening its dark doors-- I was leaning out; I was listening.

The Kookaburras

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator. In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting to stride out of a cloud and lift its wings. The kookaburras, pressed against the edge of their cage, asked me to open the door. Years later I remember how I didn't do it, how instead I walked away. They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs. They didn't want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly home to their river. By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them. As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers. Nothing else has changed either. Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap. The sun shines on the latch of their cage. I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

The Black Walnut Tree

- 1992 My mother and I debate: we could sell the black walnut tree to the lumberman, and pay off the mortgage. Likely some storm anyway will churn down its dark boughs, smashing the house. We Talk slowly, two women trying in a difficult time to be wise. Roots in the cellar drains, I say, and she replies that the leaves are getting heavier every year, and the fruit harder to gather away. But something brighter than money moves in our blood-an edge sharp and quick as a trowel that wants us to dig and sow. SO we talk, but we don't do anything. That night I dream of my fathers out of Bohemia filling the blue fields of fresh and generous Ohio with leaves and vines and orchards. What my mother and I both know is that we'd crawl with shame in the emptiness we'd made in our own and our father's backyard. So the black walnut tree swings through another year of sun and leaping winds, of leaves and bounding fruit, and, month after month, the whip- crack of the mortgage.