It feels so strange. She was a poet whose work I love, whose poems I quote often, yet I haven’t bought a book of hers for many years. (I got annoyed with the mingling of poems and essays, because I wanted to hard stuff, the potent stuff. Just the poems, those wonderful seeds she grew, that rooted straight into my brain, into my spine, that leafed and bloomed and jolted me awake, back into my one wild and precious life, to quote her again.) And she published often, so for the last few years I’ve trailed my fingers across their spines in bookstores and paused a moment, but moved on to other people’s books as more urgently desired. I let her quiet voice be background. I wish I hadn’t.
It’s all the stranger to find out about her death now, while I’m preparing a class on Robert Frost. They’re similar poets in lots of ways – both with touchstone poems that thousands of people who don’t normally know poetry do know, and often by heart. Both of them rooted their poetry in the natural world, and in the sacred. Both were accused of being wafty, or mystical, or sentimental, yadda yadda. There are certainly poems of both that I would agree do fit those categories. But that’s not a fair characterisation of their work as a whole, any more than it would be fair to say that Carlos Sainz is a dangerous driver because he often drives vastly above the speed limit and has been involved in crashes. Context is important. In their own ways, both were working at the edges of what is considered acceptable. They were just doing so less flamboyantly than say an ee cummings or a Gertrude Stein, less confrontingly than Sharon Olds, so it’s easier to sneer at their less successful efforts, and dismiss them. But there’s a reason why people quote their poems: their best work is devastatingly good.
There are, and no doubt will continue to be, plenty of things written about Mary Oliver and her work and its place in the literary landscape. I’m not going to be able to add anything deep, or anything particularly new to the discussion. Just that she was an important poet to me – I share a lot of the same views, for one thing – and I go back to her poems again and again. They’re a tall, cold glass of fresh water on a hot day. A hand on my shoulder when I’m feeling lost. A letter from a friend who I haven’t heard from in years, whose voice I would recognise in a crowded room even after decades. Yes, that‘s it – recognition. I always felt as though she was writing to me. Not me, Joanna, or not really that. But that I was one of her tribe, and that her words were always meant for us. Not proclamations: conversations. Prophesies sometimes. Sometimes memories. She wasn’t my mother, or my queen, or my priest. Not even the nun in the woods who I would slip out to visit. She was … an aunt. Maybe an honorary one, I don’t know. Don’t think it matters. Not necessarily an aunt in blood. But an aunt in the bone. Someone who would carry on with what she was already doing when I come to visit, but would meet my eyes in welcome when I arrive, maybe make a space for me on the bench beside her. Raise her voice a little, so I could hear what she was saying, or singing to herself. Maybe hand me something to hold, something to untangle, to sort for her. Or not. Letting me wander around the room, picking things up, putting them down. But carrying on with her work; her important, woman’s work. Aunt Web. Aunt Bird. Aunt Shadow. Aunt Leaf.
Sweet dreams, Mary Oliver. Thank you. This time, may the deer stand and wait.