The Saving Grace of Mary Oliver

January 22, 2019 | 4 min read

The poet Mary Oliver had one wish for her end of days. “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world,” she wrote in her poem “When Death Comes.” But in the massive outpouring of sympathy that followed her death on Thursday at 83, it is clear she was so much more than a mere visitor. With her evocative poems that combined emotion, nature, and accessibility, Oliver inhabited a life of beauty and language, and she leaves behind a body of work that has taken up residence in the lives of many.

But she was especially beloved by queer readers and writers. She was one of us, after all, sharing her life with the photographer and gallery owner Molly Malone Cook for four decades until Cook’s death in 2005. Oliver’s queer identity and search for meaning provided the subtle underpinning for much of her work and we—in search of understanding, comfort, fortitude—often saw ourselves and our questions reflected in it.

I came to her work as I was coming out, wrestling to break free from the specter of fundamentalist religion that had stalked my childhood and adolescence. At the heart of my struggle was an exhausting question I had asked myself over and over: am I good? I had prayed, fasted, and denied myself for years in hopes of becoming something I was clearly not, of changing myself, and the time had come for a reckoning with the truth.

My question, Oliver told me in her poem “Wild Geese,” was beside the point. There was a more open, inclusive spiritual journey to join:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have 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.

Goodness, she seemed to believe, was innate, a gift not to be earned but accepted. I had a “place / in the family of things.”

As I moved deeper into her images and lines, I realized that her poems were as sturdy as she was, and I leaned on them for strength and balance as my world shifted, as I began to reveal myself to others. Has there ever been a poem that better captures the liberation, the fear, the possibility embodied in coming out than “The Journey”? “One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began…” That step, Oliver promised, would carry me “deeper and deeper / into the world” and would “save / the only life you could save.”

I would face rejection from a few, she told me in “The Uses of Sorrow.” I would be maimed, yet I would one day recover and thrive:

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

But she also signaled, in “Sometimes,” that I would be surprised at the acceptance of so many more:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Yet there were more lessons she sought to teach me. I had fallen in love with the man I would eventually marry, a fellow writer, and her words deepened our bond. We exchanged her poetry as gifts, tokens that carried messages of our values and devotion. “To pay attention, this is our endless / and proper work,” lines from her poem “Yes! No!”, became a call that has anchored us. Like nature, like the writing life, like words themselves, relationships required proper tending and care, or else they would wither.

But wilting—loss and death—will nevertheless one day come, she warned in the poem “In Blackwater Woods”:

You must be able
to do three things:
to hold what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Here, though, is where Oliver might have been wrong. Yes, we should learn to hold people and possessions loosely, for they are not ours in the end. But there are also notions that one cannot let go, things we carry inside us—like words and our relationship to them. And to their author. Now, in the wake of her death, I have other questions nestled inside me: How many people’s stories might have been different if not for the questions she embodied on the page? How many lives has she saved with her words?

I see them now, lives that speckle the 50-plus years of her career. Young people across the decades rejected by their families for being who they are. Patients in the AIDS wards of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Soldiers denied the right to serve their country. Couples applying for marriage licenses. Him and her and them, all simply seeking to use a bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. I imagine her words hovering above them like stardust—lines and images and mysteries that descend and seep in through their ears, mouths, and pores—offering courage, solace, revelation.

And armor. In our present moment, I find myself returning to her quiet assurances and lessons more than ever. They are a haven from what has been loosed in our culture: insults, hate speech, and demagoguery from people and politicians who devalue the beautiful potential of language while simultaneously harnessing its darkest powers. A president who negates the lives of transgender people to pacify his rabid base, a vice president who delights in insulting the existence of gays and lesbians.

What if those people read her? Perhaps they too might be cleansed, changed, by her poetry. An unlikely, naïve hope—for to be changed, one must first be open to the prospect. On my own journey, as I walked a “road full of fallen / branches and stones,” she helped me find a deeper, easier way of the spirit that is not shadowed by fear, that combines the beauty of faith and doubt in equal measure. I am stronger because of her, more open, more settled in myself, more willing to be vulnerable in person and on the page—all because I once asked myself this question, one I return to again and again: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Image Credit: Max Pixel.

is the author of A Few Honest Words and co-author of Something’s Rising. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon, The Nation, Utne Reader, Sojourners and on NPR.

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