To Miss Oliver: an obituary of a walking poet
4 weeks ago Triangle 0
Written by: Nathan Ecarma, Editor-in-Chief
I had just met Miss Oliver.
She had taken me on walks through forests and even swamps, pointing out this and that. Those walks were slow, and there weren’t many words; but when there were, they counted.
And I always understood what she said. I may have had to mouth the words to myself, but it wasn’t long before the words sunk deep into my bones.
One day, and it was a frenetic day, but one day she sat there on the counter, and I told her about my day and how I lived a squirrel’s life, and sitting back clutching her own hands looking not too far but in the distance, she said,
“Things take the time they take. Don’t
How many roads did St. Augustine follow
before he became St. Augustine?”
“But—” I responded.
“Things take the time they take.”
Another day, we were on a bench looking out onto a lake. I like grand things, only the grandest, like the mighty lake before us. But she touched me on the shoulder, taking my attention and putting it on a little cricket. I protested. I didn’t care about the cricket. I explained that there was a lake with the sun dancing on its water waiting for death. But she said,
“The cricket doesn’t wonder
if there’s a heaven
or, if there is, if there’s room for him.
It’s fall. Romance is over. Still, he sings.
If he can, he enters a house
through the tiniest crack under the door.
Then the house grows colder.
He sings slower and slower.
This must mean something, I don’t know what.
But certainly it doesn’t mean
he hasn’t been an excellent cricket
all his life.”
I loved my days with her. But, with the closing of the book, she was gone.
Miss Oliver died today in her home in Hobe Sound, Florida. She was 83. Even though lung cancer was her past, lymphoma eventually got to her. She had lived in Florida with Miss Cook, her partner. They had been together for over forty years.
Her poetry had served her well with worldly rewards like the 1984 Pulitzer prize and some other worldly. Writer Ruth Graham explained that her worldly rewards weren’t as important to her. “I always had a sense of her as somebody who was just interested in following her own path, both spiritually and poetically,” Graham said.
Some knew her as a Frost or a Whitman or a Dickinson or a Thoreau. But I knew her as Mary Oliver. I do see why they would compare her to those others. She took many long walks after all. She was a friend of the fauns and other creatures that we would never see. She was quiet and observed with measure. Some have said that she was “a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms.”
But to me, Miss Oliver was the one who went on walks for me, leaving me only to hope to walk so slowly with my eyes open. She was the one who tugged at that emotion in us that stirs up what must be love but the love that brings tears. “Yes! That’s what that is!” is how I would often respond. She gave me the courage, and I do mean the courage, to write, always with her reminder in hand: “How many roads did St. Augustine take before he became St. Augustine?”
Her simplicity in style is what gave me courage. Oliver’s poems are simple—but the unachievable simple, like when dirt’s been dug up but put back in the ground so the next shovelful fills and slides off. I want to dig so others can have that pleasure of unearthing the unearthed.
Elsewhere, she wrote that which is too good to pass up: “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”
Her poems started with the world but ended up somewhere eternal. Hearing her is sitting in at a window seat in a fueled jet for the full runway only to be carried away, shot into the upper regions in a split second, in a turn of the phrase.
She will be missed. We have lost a special type of poet, a poet who needs the natural world: “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”
I think back to that day in the used bookstore where we met for the first time. I almost left without you. Just as I almost left you, you have almost fully left me.
I’ll let her tell you what I mean by almost.
“Mr. Death, I am pleased to tell you, there
are rifts in your long black coat. Today
Rumi (obit. 1273) came visiting, and not for
the first time. True he didn’t speak with
his tongue but from memory, and whether
he was short or tall I still don’t know.
But he was as real as the tree I was
under. Just because something’s physical
doesn’t mean it’s the greatest. He
offered a poem or two, then sauntered on.
I sat awhile feeling content and feeling
contentment in the tree also. Isn’t
everything in the world shared? And one
of the poems contained a tree, so of
course the tree felt included. That’s Rumi, who has no trouble slipping out of
your long black coat, oh Mr. Death.”
So I will head off, book in hand, to be under that tree to meet you once again.
Author’s Note: No, I have not actually met Miss Oliver. But I would say I have met her in a real, actual way. The beginning narrative is poetical and metaphorical. The poems above are from Oliver’s collection Felicity pages 3, 15, 27.