When Death Comes

Mary Oliver died today. Through her poetry, I negotiated one of the most difficult passages of my life.

She taught me to leave behind those other voices, so that I could hear a new voice, which I slowly recognized as my own and which kept me company as I strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to save the only life that I could save.

She taught me that I didn’t have to be good or walk on my knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting–I only had to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.

She taught me that it was okay not to know and maybe to never quite know, for our part is not knowing, but looking, and touching, and loving.

She taught me that paying attention is a kind of prayer. She taught me every morning to kneel down and say some kind of musical thanks for the world that is happening again.

She taught me to listen to the god of dirt, who has come up to me many times since and said so many wise and delectable things as I lay on the grass listening, as he said in his bird voice, wind voice, snow voice, “now” and “now” and never once mentioned forever.

Whenever I hear the wild geese calling, harsh and exciting, I will hear Mary Oliver’s voice, over and over announcing my place in the family of things.

Thank you Mary. You were not a visitor to this world. You were a bride married to amazement. You were the bridegroom, taking the world into your arms.

May we all follow your example.

Selected Works (in order quoted above)

“The Journey”

“Wild Geese” (audio)


“The Summer Day”

“On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate”

“One or Two Things”

“When Death Comes”

“When Death Comes”
by Mary Oliver


When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

6 thoughts on “When Death Comes

Add yours

  1. What a beautiful tribute John. The depth of how and what you love amazes me. You keep me in awe of the world. Something Mary Oliver helped you with. I owe gratitude to her as well. Ruth 🙂

  2. This is beautiful John. I hadn’t heard about her death, and just happened to decide today to check in with your blog. While I haven’t yet spent a lot of time with her poetry, what I have read has been moving and transformational, and I’m really sad to hear of her passing. You’ve reminded me to pick up her poetry again – so thank you.

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