Imagination is better than a sharp instrument.

Thank you, Mary Oliver (1935-2019), for your poetry that has accompanied me and countless others (and will continue to) throughout so much of life. I have read your words aloud at dinner tables and hospital beds, under my covers and on long meandering hikes, during moments of extreme joy and aching grief. Thank you for your imagination and your light and for reminding us to always pay attention during these wild and precious lives.

Readers, here are some of the Mary Oliver poems I’ve posted over the years, though I recommend you explore the vast collection of her incredible work. I’ll leave you this morning with one of the first poems of hers I ever loved and shared on this blog a decade ago.

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“Yes! No!”

How necessary it is to have opinions! I think the spotted trout
lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I
think serenity is not something you just find in the world,
like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like
small dark lanterns.

The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out

Yes! No! The

swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.

I think there is no end or return

Let’s begin to wind down National Poetry Month with the beloved Mary Oliver (1935-) and her lyrical wisdom.

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“A Pretty Song”

 From the complications of loving you

I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.

Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
This isn’t a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.

Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.

And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song,
And I say to my heart: rave on.

Now is my father traveling where there is no road

“Poem for my Father’s Ghost”

–Mary Oliver

Now is my father
A traveler, like all the bold men
He talked of, endlessly
And with boundless admiration,
Over the supper table,
Or gazing up from his white pillow —
Book on his lap always, until
Even that grew too heavy to hold.

Now is my father free of all binding fevers
Now is my father
Travelling where there is no road
Finally, he could not lift a hand
To cover his eyes.
Now he climbs to the eye of the river,
He strides through the Dakotas,
He disappears into the mountains, And though he looks
Cold and hungry as any man
At the end of a questing season,

He is one of them now:
He cannot be stopped.

Now is my father
Walking the wind,
Sniffing the deep Pacific
That begins at the end of the world.

Vanished from us utterly,
Now is my father circling the deepest forest —
Then turning in to the last red campfire burning
In the final hills,

Where chieftains, warriors and heroes
Rise and make him welcome,
Recognizing, under the shambles of his body,
A brother who has walked his thousand miles.

the roughage shines like a miracle

 

“Poppies”

by Mary Oliver (1935- )

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—
deep, blue night?

let the hours play upon my body

I had the rare pleasure of seeing Mary Oliver read tonight. She had a peaceful, grounded presence that I expected from having read her poems. But what surprised me is how delightfully funny she was, standing up there at the podium in her signature black turtleneck, fumbling around with her books as she mumbled self-deprecating little anecdotes here and there.

Here is one of the poems she read that stayed with me when I left the auditorium an hour ago…

“Sometimes”

1.

Something came up
out of the dark.
It wasn’t anything I had ever seen before.
It wasn’t an animal
or a flower,
unless it was both.

Something came up out of the water,
a head the size of a cat
but muddy and without ears.
I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.

But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement.

2.

Sometime
melancholy leaves me breathless…

3.

Water from the heavens! Electricity from the source!
Both of them mad to create something!

The lighting brighter than any flower.
The thunder without a drowsy bone in its body.

4.

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

5.
Two or three times in my life I discovered love.
Each time it seemed to solve everything.
Each time it solved a great many things
but not everything.
Yet left me as grateful as if it had indeed, and
thoroughly, solved everything.

6.

God, rest in my heart
and fortify me,
take away my hunger for answers,
let the hours play upon my body

like the hands of my beloved.
Let the cathead appear again-
the smallest of your mysteries,
some wild cousin of my own blood probably-
some cousin of my own wild blood probably,
in the black dinner-bowl of the pond.

7.

Death waits for me, I know it, around
one corner or another.
This doesn’t amuse me.
Neither does it frighten me.

After the rain, I went back into the field of sunflowers.
It was cool, and I was anything but drowsy.
I walked slowly, and listened

to the crazy roots, in the drenched earth, laughing and growing.

just pay attention

“Praying”

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

by Mary Oliver (1935-)

a schoolhouse of little words

A muscle puller designed by my Oregonian friend
A mussel puller in Monterey designed by Adam Mathias Cole, Corvalis, Oregon. Photo taken by me.
“Breakage”-Mary Oliver
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light.
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred —
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the
moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.