Skip to content

How Mary Oliver ‘found love in a breathing machine.’


I’VE WRITTEN BEFORE, in passing, about Mary Oliver, poet and Pulitzer and National Book award winner. She’s a remarkable poet of the natural world, capable of articulating and concretizing the sense of wonder that surrounds us outdoors. But she is not strictly a writer of the wilderness, the way, say, Edward Abbey is; she is a poet of the wondrous details of life, intimate and wild, minute and immense alike. And she is, perhaps above all, a poet who teaches love, in an everyday, unassuming sort of way—and as we get swept up in the annual consumer frenzy and panicked family gatherings that are the holidays, her writing offers something of a compass by which we might set our path.

The American NoteIn stark contrast to the aforementioned season, she admits of no flair in her writing, no frivolity: her structure, syntax, and word choice are all clean and simple. Yet she is too enamored of the world for any of her work to be dull; she can hardly help herself, it seems. Thus she writes, “I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it/ nothing fancy./ But it seems impossible./ Whatever the subject, the morning sun/ glimmers it.”

It is this impulse that allows her to write as she does about, even, the oxygen machine her partner used in her last days—a device that so many others would find at best cold and more likely cruel, intrusive:

Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,
while it calls the earth its home, the soul.
So the merciful, noisy machine

stands in our house working away in its
lung-like voice, I hear it as I kneel
before the fire, stirring with a

stick of iron, letting the logs
lie more loosely. You, in the upstairs room,
are in your usual position, leaning on your

right shoulder which aches
all day. You are breathing
patiently; it is a

beautiful sound. It is
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of
separation. And what does this have to do
with love, except


Love found in a breathing machine, a tended fire, an aching shoulder, a steady inhalation and exhalation—neither the objects of her love nor the language in which she renders them are extraordinary. But she presents them with such conviction, as being so absolutely essential to her life, that the effect is breath-taking: first you find yourself agog at such love, so casual, so complete. And then, slowly, you begin to see the ordinary around you with the same shade of importance that she expresses in her poetry—perhaps we envy her such love and want to experience it ourselves.

Consider these lines from “Am I Not Among the Early Risers”:

Have I not stood, amazed, as I consider
the perfection of the morning star
above the peaks of the houses, and the crowns of the trees
blue in the first light?

How many of us, hurrying to work or school in the early-morning light—if we’re awake at all, and most of us aren’t—have even stopped to admire that last star still in the glowing sky, let alone to be truly amazed by it? Yet who, having heard her amazement, the way it stuns her with its beauty, who will not now stop to contemplate, at least, the kind of person who could find it so wonderful?

IN MY LAST NOTE, I referred to the way that critics offer us new lenses through which to see the world. Mary Oliver does the same, but in a patently different way; the lenses are not lenses of argument or analysis, but rather of unexpected goodness and beauty—she finds it where we would not, in too-small flowers, in her dog eating a deer carcass, in washed-up sea life, in walking and walking and walking. Or perhaps more than offering us new lenses, she would rather think that she shatters the dark, argumentative glasses that the critics teach us to wear:

The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

With our hearts newly shattered, vulnerable to the world around us, we are able to see as she sees—and, we might hope, love the world as she loves it.

DESPITE THE OBVIOUSLY literary bent of her work, it is worth noting that she does claim for herself something of a political role. In one of her rare interviews, she discussed other nature poets and their political-conservation roles, and their inclination towards discussing devastation and environmental ruin. Then she said, “I just happen to think you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So I try to do more of the ‘Have you noticed this wonderful thing? Do you remember this?’…I try to praise. If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like.”

This may well be true. She is very good at describing the earth, and it is certainly relevant and useful, politically, for us to have writers who do it so well. But it seems to me that even if her lasting effect is one of conservation, it will come not through people remembering what the earth looked like, but through their loving it. Her value lies in the way she makes her readers love and wonder at the world around us, the animals, the elements, the people. She teaches us that it must matter to us deeply and personally; when it seems we might be trapped in our confused heads forever, she offers us a way out into the world and a reason to go there:

Don’t think just now of the trudging forward of thought,
But of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation.
It’s summer, you never saw such a blue sky,
And here they are, those white birds with quick wings,
Sweeping over the waves, chattering and plunging,
Their thin beaks snapping, their hard eyes
Happy as little nails.
The years to come—this is a promise—
Will grant you ample time
To try the difficult steps in the empire of thought
Where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.
But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
Than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.
The flock thickens
Over the rolling, salt brightness. Listen,
Maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world
In the clasp of attention, isn’t the perfect prayer,
But it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
Is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,
But of pure submission. Tell me, what else
Could beauty be for?…

Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. An archive of her Notes is here.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *