By Lisa Folkmire
“…everything is mortal. It dies. But its parts don’t die. Its parts become something else…And what more there might be, I don’t know”
(Mary Oliver, On Being Project interview with Krista Tippett)
I. “We all/have much more listening to do. Tear the sand/away. And listen. The river is singing.”
(Devotions, “Evidence,” 82)
We lost a giant. I was reminded of this in the least likely of places. First from a friend’s text about Mary Oliver’s passing, then as I scrolled through my Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds only to find a stream of her work, from my writer and non-writer friends alike. While I know Mary Oliver would rather that I be reminded of this on a lake shore or in a pine forest or under her coveted flock of geese, I was doing what she always quietly insisted we all do: learning from what the world had to offer in that moment, which happened to be in an office cubicle in one of the most corporate cities in the area I grew up in on a Thursday afternoon. I hadn’t realized just how much this news meant to me until I was back home reading through her work. I found comfort, solidarity, peace, and possibly at most, personal loss. Were my tears merited for my relationship (or lack thereof) to Mary? Was I crying because of her words, because of her death, or because of the loss of the voice that I had found great friendship in not long ago?
II. “This is a poem about Percy./This is a poem about more than Percy./Think about it”
(Dog Songs, “Percy Wakes Me,” 59)
Mary Oliver first came to me in Dog Songs. My now-partner of four years handed it to me for my birthday, two weeks before we would realize just how much we meant to each other and shortly after I told him “you don’t really know me until you see me with my dogs.” Maybe this was a marking of what was to come—we would grow for the next four years, pushing each other individually as humans and as writers. This book opened a world for me. Suddenly the term “poet” didn’t seem as far out of reach for me as it had pages before. Here was a writer who set the gravity of writing about human connection or condition, or impressing with words and images aside. Maybe this was Mary’s way of saying to stop taking ourselves so seriously. The dogs seem happiest, after all.
III. “Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look/up into that blue space?”
(Devotions, “Whistling Swan,” 6)
On Sundays we went to a Catholic church, its tall ceilings and long alter creating a cavernous beast of holy devotion too serious for its own good. The slender windows that lined the building reflected the burning Michigan fall, glass leaves made to look like the ones on our maple and ashes and birch as they turned in the whistling winds. My eyes so focused on the colors the sun stretched across the congregation, I never heard much from the readings reaching from the altar. My mind instead on the way the glass faltered the leaves, the way they couldn’t turn so stuck in their determination to structure us in their own coloring flames.
IV. “I wish you would walk with me out into the world./I wish you could see what has to happen, how/each one crackles like a blessing/over its thin children as they rush away”
(Dream Work, “Milkweed,” 65)
It was the way the trees asked me to crane my neck to look at them. The way the moss and the twigs covered the deep brown dirt to make hiding holes for the toads and snakes that waited beneath. The way the great Estivant Pines seemed to mimic the red oaks I had seen on PBS or other stations in the three bedroom ranch where I grew up in the structured suburbs of metro-Detroit. I was so young the first time my father led us down the narrow winding trail that I only remember the way my eyes could have looked forever up the soft brown-red of the trunks, and the way the hot summer day became cool because of the way the treetops kept the sun away. So cool I was glad for the zip-up my mother insisted I wear. And somewhere between my siblings calling my name ahead and my parents walking slow behind, I remember feeling my first understanding, my first anchoring in this life I had just set out to live.
V. “I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds/or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of/praying, as you no doubt have yours”
(Devotions, “How I Go to the Woods,” 64)
Our mother was the Catholic one. She pulled us out of the church for a few years. I was somewhere around nine. At this point in my religious considerations, I was still unconvinced of the Bible. But I had great faith in an outer life, something outside of the sphere of the visible. We spent our summers in these years travelling to lake shores, camping in tents. The worst storms of the year always hit on these weekends. In the second or third year, the storm caught me out on the rocks of Lake Huron. I was swimming with another young friend and trying to test the waves, feel their white waters hit our backs for some form of pleasure. Testing nature was our way of proving adventure. What we didn’t notice were the skies growing darker each second the waves grew longer, the wind stronger. We fought their pull as we pushed our legs forward to shore, our feet slipping on the rocks. I don’t remember the exact words I thought as my non-athlete legs pushed against the water, but I remember watching the gulls, following their patterns with my eyes as they swirled against the wind, the waves still coming toward us from behind.
VI. “Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world”
(Devotions, “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass,” 79).
In college, I traveled to England for a month. On one of the weekends, a friend and I took to the English countryside. We looked out the window at the rolling hills covered yellow in Gorse, leading to the roaring seaside we grew up reading about as necessary as breath. It was the flowers I remember most, their yellow petals bunched tight together, the tropical scent of coconut in an unlikely place, the way the yellow beamed bright against the dark water below.
VII. “You do not have to be good./You do not have to 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”
(Dream Work, “Wild Geese,” 14)
I started to call myself a writer at the time when I was making my worst life decisions. I was exploring what it was like to be independent, and with that came many mistakes, public displays of thoughtlessness and ignorance, all with a lacing of pride that I wish I could take back. But when I started writing, I had to look at my own thoughts, at my own reasoning and consideration, and attempt to break down what I was actually voicing. It all made so much more sense—or less sense, on paper. I was finally hearing myself, hearing the words that I had asked others to understand before I even knew what I was saying.
VIII. “I don’t know what death is./I don’t know what God is./But I do believe they have between them/some fervent and necessary arrangement”
(Devotions, “Sometimes,” 104)
This is all to say that I am grateful for this voice that Mary Oliver left for all of us. For these words not so marked as “poet’s” but more as “human’s.” For a voice that reached out to me even before I knew its words. I believe in Mary’s belief, that when we die we don’t completely leave, that our energy remains with those behind. That from an ending comes a beginning, maybe not the obvious beginnings that we all wait for, those first strikes of cognizance and being. But maybe something more like Mary’s dark mornings she told us so much about, how they quietly enter the dark middle-of-nights, a soft herald of what’s to come.