The poet Mary Oliver probably doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves, and that is unfortunate because she is one of our best. Her style is accessible, yet profound, at times bordering on conversational, engaging her readers in vital dialogue about human life and the sacredness of nature that surrounds it. That is the content she works over as a poet–the space where nature and humanity intermingle. What can a flock of geese or a field of golden rods tell us about our humanity? Oliver explores this question with the patience and keen observational eye necessary to anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment from her surroundings.
So why isn’t she more popular in critical circles? Perhaps her work is too bucolic for modern times. Personally, I find it refreshing; others may find it passé. Perhaps another criticism is that her range is limited, that she covers the same ground again and again. However true that may be, we should recognize the quality with which she covers that ground. Her focus is narrow, but exquisitely so.
Oliver wrote “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” after surviving a bout with lung cancer. I especially love the third stanza in which she reminds us to make the best of our time, which with death lurking around every corner, is as fleeting as ever.
The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac
Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles–
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river–
How desperate I would be
if I couldn’t remember
the sun rising, if I couldn’t
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belong to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more
– from Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, published by Penguin Press, 2014.