Mary Oliver, the poet, died last week at 83. Intensely private, she rarely granted interviews, but I heard one on the radio this morning. When gently probed by her interviewer, she hinted at a dark and menacing childhood, and said that writing poems about her rambles in the New England woods saved her. For her, nature was far safer and infinitely more understandable than people, although she said she became more trusting and less solitary as she got older.
She sounded small with a hint of raspy tenseness, as if unwilling to let her words spill out in person, as she did on paper. It surprised me to hear she was a lifelong smoker; her poems are so healthy and natural and Buddhist-like, but she smoked to the end. That tenseness, probably.
Her poems speak freely of wild geese and grasshoppers and birds and foxes and the lovely ocean; intensely spiritual without much mention of a creator, just hints and suggestions.
Here’s one of my favorites, from House of Light.
I Go Down to the Shore
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
I’m going for a walk now. A storm has passed through and left the wind behind to sweep up. Maybe I’ll see an osprey or two. Mary’s spirit may be out there somewhere; I like to think so.