Joy Before Death: Following the Path of Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver and her dog, Perry. Photograph by Rachel Brown.

Editors’ note: This story was originally published in the now-departed SEARCH magazine, in 2008, edited by KtB co-founder Peter Manseau. We thank them for permission to republish.

Each spring I teach a course at Boston University called “Death and Immortality.”  My students and I discuss the quest for an elixir of immortality in the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, and the execution of Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo. I tell them Christian stories about the crucifixion of Jesus and Buddhist stories about the death of the Buddha.  Along the way, my students reckon with their own mortality, even as I reckon with mine.

In a final lecture on deathbed proclamations, I talk about the last words attributed to Plato, Jesus, and the Buddha. I also include some more secular examples, such as Conrad Hilton’s “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.”  But I give this lecture’s last words over to the poet Mary Oliver. Oliver, who has just released a new book, The Truro Bear and Other Adventures, is neither a scientist nor a preacher.  But like Henry David Thoreau of Transcendentalist fame she is a naturalist whose attention to what used to be called the Book of Nature borders on both devotion and experimentation.  Her poems work in my course because they are somehow animated by death, and they work on me because they speak about the mysteries of mortality in a language that feels like home.  Perhaps that is because, like Oliver, I live on Cape Cod, so I am familiar with the fiddler crabs, great horned owls, humpback whales, irises, goldenrod, and honeysuckle that populate her poems. I suspect, however, that her poetry vibrates at frequencies close to my own because I share with her something of a Buddhist sensibility, particularly when it comes to an awareness of the transiency of things.

I read different Mary Oliver poems to my students each spring, but I always conclude with “In Blackwater Woods.” This poem begins with one of Oliver’s favorite commandments: “Look.”  Next the poet calls our attention to trees and autumn leaves and “the long tapers/ of cattails” and “the blue shoulders/ of the ponds.”  Then, as is her wont, she redirects our attention to something broader and more human:  in this case, “the black river of loss.”  The poem ends with these words: 

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

When I started working on this article, I was hoping to talk with Oliver. It’s the 25th anniversary of her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive, so I wanted to meet her at sunrise, to trudge with her across the Provincetown dunes, to pay attention to her paying attention to nature.  I wanted to ask her what she knows about Buddhism, and what she thinks of it, whether her poetic practice of attention—of looking and listening—is a kind of mindfulness, whether her attention to nature is informed by No-Self, and whether her ability to reckon with loss is rooted in an understanding of Impermanence,

I wanted to talk with her about the parallels between her sort of looking and the looking my biologist friends do through their microscopes.  I wanted to understand what she meant when she referred to herself as “spiritually curious,” and to the poem as a “confession of faith.”

Unfortunately, Oliver, who once called privacy “a natural and sensible attribute of paradise,” turns out to be rather reclusive, so I never got to ask her these questions.  Apparently she prefers making poems to giving interviews, watching the tides to revealing the ebbs and flows of her own autobiography. “You don’t want to hear the story/ of my life, and anyway/ I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen,” she wrote in 1986.  Three years later she told an interviewer that poets should vanish into their writing rather than hover in front of it. “I believe it is invasive of the work when you know too much about the writer, and almost anything is too much,” she said.

After Oliver faxed back my request for an interview with a terse (but not unfriendly) “no,” I briefly considered trying to observe her in her native habitat, traveling to Provincetown to observe her on her morning rounds, not unlike she might observe a great blue heron or some other force of nature.  But this strategy sounded too much like stalking to me, perhaps because it was.

I tried to track her down at a poetry reading last summer in Provincetown.  We exchanged hellos as she walked in the door, and a goodbye as she left.  But she came and went more like a hungry hawk than an established poet, and did not take any questions. 

So I decided instead to visit some of the sites in and around Provincetown where Oliver sites her poetry.  I decided as well to try to be in the world for a while after the manner of a Mary Oliver poem—to wake early, to look and to listen, to attend to nature, to slow down, to be grateful, to live simply, to love recklessly, to sit with my losses, to take what is given rather than what is desired, to attend to the presence of death in the midst of life, to venture out into storms rather than taking refuge from them. 

On a CD I recently received as a gift, “At Blackwater Pond:  Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver,” is a jewel of a poem called “The Buddha’s Last Instruction.”  Here are many of the themes of Oliver’s work:  a preoccupation with spirituality, a fascination with death, and a strategy of abiding in the mysteries of both by attending with amazement to the glories of the natural world.  The poem begins:

“Make of yourself a light”

said the Buddha,

before he died.

It then jumps to the poet herself, mulling over this last sermon in the presence of the rising sun.  The poem then migrates across millennia and continents again—back to Kushinara, the place of the Buddha’s death. There she shows us an old man lying down between two trees, with worlds of possible words before him as he ponders his last words. Then back to the poet and the sun. Then to the old man again, recounting the twists and turns of “his difficult life.” Then back to the poet and the sun and feelings of human inadequacy and human brilliance. And finally back to the Buddha raising his head and readying his lips to say something to a crowd at least as frightened as we are in the presence of the mystery of death. This sounds like a Buddhist poem to me. But is it?

The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner famously referred to believers outside of the Christian tradition as “anonymous Christians” bound for a heaven their religious traditions do not even entertain.   There is something generous about this intellectual sleight of hand, which conspires to smuggle Hindus and Muslims, for example, into heaven.  But there is something unsettling and even arrogant about it too, since Hindus and Muslims presumably do not want to be Christians, or to abide eternally in the aftereffects of the Christian imagination.  I have no interest, therefore, in converting Oliver into a Buddhist against her will.  She is, as far as I can determine, a Christian, and far more likely to refer to her poems as “alleluias” than as “meditations.”  Her most recent work, moreover, particularly poems crafted since the death of her life partner, Molly Malone Cook, in 2005, evokes an array of explicitly Christian themes, not least God, the soul, loaves and fishes, and resurrection.

Still, she greets many of the standard preoccupations of Christian theology with a shrug (the afterlife, she writes, is a “foolish question”), and her work is salt-and-peppered with references to Buddhism.  An owl—one of her favorite subjects—is a “Buddha with wings”;  turtles demonstrate “Buddha-like patience”;  and a toad sitting implacable and immovable by the side of a path “might have been a Buddha.” 

More importantly, mindfulness seems to be Oliver’s métier, looking and listening her scientific method and contemplative practice. “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,” she writes.  “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”  But paying attention is also Oliver’s way of being in the world.  It is what she does.  She looks.  She listens.  She attends.  “Listen,” this poet of mindfulness writes in “Terns,” “maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world/ in the clasp of attention, isn’t the perfect prayer,/ but it must be close.”

And what this mindful devotion does for Oliver is thrill and amaze her.  An Oliver poem called “Mindful” begins like this:

Every day

            I see or I hear


                                    that more or less

kills me

            with delight,

                        that leaves me

                                    like a needle

in the haystack

            of light.

                        It is what I was born for—

                                    to look, to listen . . .

If Oliver is a poet of mindful attention, she attends particularly mindfully to death.  In fact, she attends to death with a clarity equal to any living writer I know.  Her poetry seems as exquisitely calibrated as Buddhism itself to the hard realities of loss, which she calls “the great lesson.”

In my “Death and Immortality” class, my students and I explore attitudes toward death in the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions—from Jesus’s hot defiance to the Buddha’s cool acceptance.  Oliver lies closer to the founder of Buddhism here than to the founder of Christianity, but more than simply accepting death she seems to embrace it—as the secret ingredient in the recipe of nature and culture alike, the umami that somehow makes this life of suffering sweet with purpose and meaning and even mad love.

My first visit to Mary Oliver’s Provincetown began auspiciously—with the sighting of a red-tailed hawk.  As I was driving out Route 6 toward the tip of Cape Cod, I saw a large bird perched in an old oak tree by the edge of a salt marsh.  Usually a sighting like this would not stop me short, but on this day the Mary Oliver in me told me to pull over, and so I did.  As I walked back toward the tree I tried to determine whether the bird was an owl or a hawk.  As if on cue and under direction, it immediately obliged my curiosity by turning its head from side to side, revealing the distinctive profile of a hawk.  And when it flew away, flashing a brilliant red tail, I knew what sort of wild animal had visited me.

Farther down the road, I was able to locate what at least one map referred to as Blackwater Pond.  On my approach, I was surprised to see that access had been carved out in asphalt—in the form of a large, circular parking lot connecting to a series of clearly-marked walking trails around the pond.  And because it was winter, I was also surprised to see dozens of cars in the parking lot.  Out on the pond there was little to commend a poem, at least not of the Oliver variety, since her work is notorious for its single-minded focus on plants and animals.  “Few poets have fewer human beings in their poems than Mary Oliver,” the poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns once wrote, and Blackwater Pond on this day was thick with children and adults lacing up ice skates and playing hockey or twirling about on clear black ice.

During my own walk that day around and then across Blackwater Pond, I tried to honor my new guru by paying attention. I tried to glory in the natural world and to meditate, as Oliver herself seems perpetually to be doing, on change and death and loss.  But I couldn’t help thinking of Thoreau and that pesky fact that he went into town just about every day (for supplies and conviviality) during his much-hyped experiment in so-called solitude at Walden Pond. 

Gradually I realized that I had been storing up pictures of Oliver making her own path through virgin woods, cutting herself on the sorts of brambles that cut into me as a boy exploring my own woods on Cape Cod.  I realized that in all likelihood she had been dodging joggers and rollerbladers on a bramble-free asphalt bike path while musing over “On Blackwater Pond.”  I found myself wondering whether she might even have made her way to this place not by foot (as I had always assumed) but by car, and maybe not in a Prius either.  I wanted to know what Oliver the poet would have to say not only about the hawks and owls that populate Blackwater Pond but also about these high-schoolers with their Gatorade bottles and I-pods and hockey sticks.  Are they immune, I wondered, from the predatory instincts she finds so frighteningly beautiful in the owl and the red-tailed hawk?  From the immortal lusts of the natural world?

As I drove home, I found myself meditating on how death and loss are married to love and abundance in Oliver’s work, but I had a hard time homing in on the familial connection.  In some of her writing, Oliver seems to take up the Romantic position that to embrace death is to befriend both truth and beauty.  A poem of hers about lilies includes this reflection:  “to be beautiful is also to be simple/and brief;  is to rise up and be glorious, and then vanish.”  A poem called “Peonies” relates the reckless beauty of these flowers, their “eagerness/to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are/nothing, forever.”

Oliver writes repeatedly and lovingly about dogs, who reside in the limens between nature and culture, the wild and the tame.  And she prefers to walk her dog off-leash.  So it should not be surprising that her poems about love read like unleashings. Love for her is a sprint from domesticity into the wild, from calculation to abandon.  “There isn’t anything in this world but mad love.  Not in this world.  Not tame love, calm love, mild love, no so-so love.  And, of course, no reasonable love.” 

One of the claims I explore with my “Death and Immortality” students is that life and love are richer and deeper once you realize that nothing is immortal. “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Oliver asks.  Each of us is “a customer of death coming.” But Oliver’s takeaway is not to hasten to a funeral home (or, for that matter, a nunnery), but to live wildly and love madly, to imitate the peony and the lily in bloom, the dog sprinting off its leash after sea spray and seagulls. 

A friend recently introduced me to a prose poem by Oliver that had somehow eluded me.  It is now my favorite piece by her, the John 3:16 in my Gospel according to Mary Oliver: 

You are young.  So you know everything.  You leap

into the boat and begin rowing.  But listen to me.

Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without

any doubt, I talk directly to your soul.  Listen to me.

Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and

your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to

me.  There is life without love.  It is not worth a bent

penny, or a scuffed shoe.  It is not worth the body of a

dead dog nine days unburied.  When you hear, a mile

away and still out of sight, the churn of the water

as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the

sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable

pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth

and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls

plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life

toward it.

There is so much I love about this poem.  I love that it is set on the water, and in nothing more elaborate than a rowboat.  I love the words “roil” and “fretting,” and the fact that they are separated by nothing more than a comma.  I love the provocation that life without love is nothing.  But mostly I love the surprise at the end, which turns this poem into a short story of sorts;  did she really say toward all that danger?

Although Oliver’s poetry is notorious for neglecting human subjects, I find real insight here into not only the “great lesson” of loss but also the equally great lesson of love.  In a poem called “Gratitude,” Oliver brings these two subjects together.  “Have I not loved as though the beloved could vanish at any moment, or become preoccupied, or whisper a name other than mine in the stretched curvatures of lust, or over the dinner table?”  The answer, as readers of Oliver’s extraordinary poetry will instantly know, is yes.

So what about my experiment in the Dao of Mary Oliver?  How did that go? 

Not so well, I’m afraid.  I did venture out, umbrella free, into virtually every storm I have encountered over the last few months. I paid better attention to the red-tailed hawks and blue herons that populate the salt marsh behind the cottage where I live—and, I suspect, to my friends as well.  I continued to love impossibly, and tried to accept the losses that wild love brings.  And while I did once get up once to greet the sunrise, glorying in that moment like the birth of a new child, I haven’t set my alarm that early since.

Still, my efforts to walk in the footsteps of Mary Oliver have brought me a stronger sense of my own mortality, a stronger determination to love madly whatever the cost, and a new mantra:  “joy before death.”  This mantra comes from Oliver’s poem “Blossoms,” which recalls for me the pond near my boyhood home, thick every spring with bullfrogs and possibilities.  And though it is about beginnings, because it is about beginnings, this poem seems an appropriate place to end this walk.

In April

the ponds open

like black blossoms,

the moon

swims in every one;

there’s fire

everywhere: frogs shouting

their desire,

their satisfaction. What

we know: that time

chops at us all like an iron

hoe, that death

is a state of paralysis. What

we long for: joy

before death, nights

in the swale – everything else

can wait but not

this thrust

from the root

of the body. What

we know: we are more

than blood – we are more

than our hunger and yet

we belong

to the moon and when the ponds

open, when the burning

begins the most

thoughtful among us dreams

of hurrying down

into the black petals

into the fire,

into the night where time lies shattered

into the body of another.

Editors’ note: This story was originally published in the now-departed SEARCH magazine, in 2008, edited by KtB co-founder Peter Manseau. We thank them for permission to republish.

Stephen Prothero teaches at Boston University and writes books, including God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, published by HarperOne. His latest is Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).