Asked about my favorite poets, I have always said that Mary Oliver was in my top five. Vague, pleasant memories of her poems about the natural landscapes of Cape Cod filled my mind whenever her name was invoked. But when she passed away this week, I realized that it has been years (and years) since I read her work.
I have lots of good excuses for why I have not pulled a book of her poetry from the shelf since 2002, but none of them matter. What matters is that I spent the day with her books today. And although I liked her poems when I read them in my 20’s, I actually understand her poems a lot better now that I’m in my 40’s. In my 20’s, I thought, these poems are beautiful. In my 40’s, I think, these poems are beautiful paintings, lullabies, gifts, elegies.
Oliver’s poems are reflective and feel like they were written just after a rambling walk outdoors. As a young woman, I didn’t notice most of the things that Oliver glorifies in her poems – the frog in her “shining, green skin”; the white heron “like a dropped cloud”; the hummingbird flitting from flower to flower “on the green wheel of his wings”; the poppies sending up “their orange flares”; the goldenrod – “on roadsides,/ in fall fields,/ in rumpy bunches, / saffron and orange and pale gold,/ in little towers,/ soft as mash,/ sneeze-bringers and seed-bearers,/ full of bees and yellow beads and perfect flowerlets.”
I especially didn’t notice the fact that the most glorious thing in life just may be, in fact, to ramble without purpose outdoors – listening, watching, collecting experiences to be made sense of and distilled at a later time. After my day with Mary Oliver, I understand her argument in favor of experience over analysis. For, as she says in her conclusion to the poem Goldenrod, “what has consciousness come to anyway, so far/ that is better than these light-filled bodies?/ All day/ on their airy backbones/ they toss in the wind,/ they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,/ they rise in a stiff sweetness, in the pure peace of giving/ one’s gold away.”
Is the purpose of life to give one’s gold away? It very likely is. Mary Oliver certainly demonstrated the value in it. If she were still here, she would probably signal you to stop what you’re doing and take a look around you. Who knows – her gold may be quietly sitting on your bookshelf waiting for you to notice it, pick it up, and take it where you ramble.