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Mary Oliver

by | Mar 8, 2018

I read recently that IKEA’s founder attributed the ubiquitous furniture company’s success to his breakthrough innovation of “wordless directions:” diagrammatic drawings with some numbers or letters, but no written explanations. This made the language of assembly more or less universal, so we could all make the same stupid mistakes putting together our shelves. (Or maybe that was just me).

One of the things I like about poetry is it usually comes without explanations or directions. Batteries are never included and assembly is always required. Sometimes there are acknowledgements at the end of a book and usually a dedication at the beginning; mostly though it’s a table of contents, a volume title, and then the first poem. There’s anticipation turning to that page, for me, like setting out to explore a new place with only the map of your imagination and experience.

Much of the work of the admired poet Mary Oliver is inspired by her daily, reflective engagement with nature and the human world, which so often sees itself as above and apart from everything else. Oliver’s poems, seemingly about small things, re-enchant us to the incomprehensible whole, restoring a sense of humility and belonging, reminding us of the cycles of life and the power of renewal.

Here is the first poem in her volume American Primitive. It’s out of season, unless you are reading from the Southern Hemisphere, and yet exactly what is needed on a snowbound morning in March.


When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creek that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

And towards the end of that same volume, another piece referencing stolen fruit:



I come down
Come down the blacktop road from Red Rock.
A hot day.

Off the road in the hacked tangles
blackberries big as thumbs hang shining
in the shade. And a creek nearby: a dark
spit through we stones. And a pool

like a stonesink if you know
where to climb for it among
the hillside ferns, where the thrush
naps in her nest of sticks and loam. I

come down from the Red Rock, lips streaked
black, fingers purple, throat cool, shirt
full of fernfingers, head full of windy
whistling. It

takes all day


Here are two pieces I’ve been working on that are inspired by Mary Oliver.


While I’m reading Mary Oliver
on the airplane
in seat 19D,
trying to lose myself
in an early morning elegy,
to seeing and listening
what is deeply around us
in Nature,
the man in 18F
snores monstrously
all the way from Chicago to Seattle,

Reminding me of the time in Sienna,
In a palazzo converted into a hotel
nearby the old center,
I was kept awake all night by the effects of my first grappa
And a man snoring beside me,
in the next room.

It made me think of the snorting Palio horses
storming over straw, dirt and stone campo
and Langston Hughes’ bluesy poem
Morning After,
which come to think of it
Is also a piece about understanding


Drifting off,
right before you came,
I was in Mary’s blueberry patch on the Cape,

watching her white hands against a dark sweater
searching through tiny leaves
and branches for a breakfasts harvest.

It reminded me of that sweet little church
somewhere in Maine, which absent sufficient congregants
became a community library.

Standing on the old wooden floorboards
just below what was once the pulpit,
we admired how the assembly of readings

was far more expansive and ecumenical now;
but perhaps not more open-hearted
or disposed to the notions of gathering.

The blueberries on that trip were unexpected too:
dark and spare, slightly desiccated,
concentrated beads of flavor, representing

no more than they were
or what they were meant to be,
yet a wonderment nevertheless.

About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.