Vale Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver died yesterday, aged 83. I’ve only blogged about one of her books, here, and didn’t say much about it. But every time I’ve read one of her poems – in a book lying around in a conference centre or picked from a friend’s bookshelf – she’s struck a nerve. Someone on Twitter begged the world not to straightwash her, so I’ll mention that she wrote sweet poems to her same-gender lovers.

I hope her estate will be OK with me sharing this, which was published i 2006, when she was the age I am now.

When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

10 responses to “Vale Mary Oliver

  1. Beautifully expressed sentiments – thanks for the sharing J. Just now sitting reading Tanka in a new collection (new and previously published) by a friend – Amelia FIELDEN (Canberra): These Purple Years (Gininderra Press 2018) – the title a working of a Japanese tradition associating the wearing of the colour purple with being in one’s seventies (70s). Much of it is of a reflective – at times grieving (lost loves) or wistful even nostalgic sensibility. This poem by Mary Oliver had it been rendered in a tanka chain would have fitted in exactly with Amelia’s writing. Two pieces:

    when I grow
    too old to travel
    my dreams
    will take me back to Japan
    in cherry blossom time

    sixty-one years
    of cherished friendship
    remaining alive
    only in my memories
    the boy and man you were

    …………………………………………..(R.I.P. Michael)


    • someone was telling me the other day about the Japanese tradition of the Death Poem – you’ll know more about it that I do Jim, but evidently the idea is that poets of a certain age write the kind of poem that they’d like to have just finished at the moment of death – that is, to die with the brush still in one’s hand having finished the perfect poem. Our milder Western tradition may be to write poems about the approach of death: it certainly seems to be a rich lode among poets of a certain age.


      • No, I am not really familiar with that purpose but nor do I find it beyond the realms of historic Japanese poets to highly prize such an instance. It makes me wonder whether in some way it is what Clive James was aiming for – when it appeared he had only months to live – yet here he is still – still writing – some years on!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting thought, Jim.


  2. I meant to add – on my Kindle app – now 15% of the way into Tracker – brilliant. Mentions the Bungalows in Alice Springs – I keep wondering if I will meet that kinship connection somewhere among those drawing their sketches of the Tracker they knew!


  3. What a wonderful poem.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been wondering about whether to get Tracker for the Kindle. My practice is print for Aussie books, and Kindle for overseas books, but maybe I’ll make an exception for this one.

    Anyhow, thanks for this post Jonathan. I particularly love these lines:
    “When it’s over, I want to say all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement.”

    How beautiful is that?!


    • Certainly with a book as bulky as Tracker Kindle has it’s attractions, but for whatever reason I find it harder to take things in when I read on a screen, so I always opt for paper, even when packing for a holiday (I had one case for clothes and another mainly for books on our recent car trip to Victoria and, probably needless to say, I only read one book (but that was Tracker).

      Yes, I love those lines too.


      • I do too… Which is partly why I stick to books for Aussies but make my nod to downsizing (or, not up sizing!) by going eBooks for others. If we drive I take print, but for long overseas holidays I now do eBooks too.

        Liked by 1 person

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.