Remembering Mary Oliver


The poet Mary Oliver died a couple of weeks ago on January 17. The news escaped me—I didn’t learn of her death until the week after. At first I was appalled—how could I have not known? Then I was amused. I believe M.O. would approve of my occasional news elimination diets. After all, once dead, the dead remain dead. Except for how they live on inside of us. Some deaths can wait to be learned about.

Whenever I think of Mary Oliver, I think of Emily Dickinson. Most likely not for any reason you may be thinking:

In the beginning, I disliked both their poems. Abhorred their poems!

About Emily D—I want to blame my utter blindness on my high school English teacher, Mrs. Dunlop. Mrs. Dunlop’s disdain for Emily became my own.

And then, when I was a college sophomore, a single poem changed everything:

Perhaps I asked too large—

I take—no less than skies—

For Earths, grow thick as

Berries, in my native town—

My Basket holds—just—Firmaments—

Those—dangle easy—on my arm,

But smaller bundles—Cram.


It’s not a well known Dickinson poem. It’s not “Hope” is the thing with feathers—, or I’m Nobody! Who are you?, or My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun.

What I mean is, this little poem, #352, is one I stumbled across thumbing through The Collected ED. I had no idea why until just now. Beside me, here on my desk, I have the book opened. Poem 351 is I felt my life with both my hands. If you are a high school graduate, you probably read that one at some point. I imagine I was reading it for some English class, and then, oh ho!, look there! Perhaps I asked too large— met my eyes and pierced my heart. I fell in love. Still am.

I was older when I first read Mary Oliver. And please! No thank you! All that talk about frogs and grass. Who has time for that?

I wanted poems that made my head spin. Mystified me. Inscrutable things that pinged my brain and left my heart out of the picture entirely.

Until one day, when I was crushed down by the business of life, the hardness of it, the sadness of it, a friend sent me a Mary Oliver poem. My father had just died after a long illness. And death—holy shit. The truth of it, the real of it—

I was completely unprepared.

A friend reached out—sent me a tiny spot of light. A Mary Oliver poem. The simple language, so elegant, so clean. The poem lifted my heart. Bouyed me.

I fell in love again.

Oh, Mary O! We will miss you. Thanks for leaving so much good stuff behind.

Lesley Hyatt