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October and Mary

What does the world

mean to you if you can’t trust it

to go on shining when you’re

not there?

In birding there is an expression used to refer to the species that drew someone to become a birder, what we call a spark bird. While I doubt there is such a phrase for someone’s first beloved poet, I think that many of us have a poet who sparked that love for the literary form. There were poets I had enjoyed before – Rupi Kaur, Rabbie Burns – but none for whom I hold a love so deep as this. My spark poet would be Mary Oliver.

Mary was a poet whom I first spotted in her “The Summer Day” plumage, perching high on a poster in a splintering screen porch. If I had come across her before I did not remember it, but she was a Hampshire County lifer for me if nowhere else. It was a humid midsummer day some four and a half years ago. A spring sang downhill, the concrete was cool underfoot, and I read Mary’s words for the first of countless times.

Being as we are in the thick of October, I find it only appropriate to introduce you to Mary with lines from the poem named for the month whose last air we are breathing as the keys fall beneath my fingertips – “October.”

Look, I want to love this world

as though it’s the last chance I’m ever going to get

to be alive

and know it.

Mary passed just a few trips around the sun ago, in January of 2019, but her legacy has stayed with many. In her time, she won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and may have been the best selling poet in the United States at the time of her passing.

To me and those friends in the mountains whom I love dearly and deeply, Mary’s words move around us as we live. At a fresh fifteen years of age, I wrote in my journal of that mountain place, “the Cove is a veritable kingdom of love that we as weary travelers cannot begin to grasp.” While Mary was not inclined towards such flowery language (preferring to write simply of the flowers themselves), I am most fond of lines I’ve penned when they seem to me to carry that same soulful tug found in her most touching lines.

Mary could convey in the barest words the most complex of feelings. They can make you feel light and love, sorrow and sickness, and all the myriad things in between. As a poet, she is difficult to encapsulate – I could write of her that she was raised in Ohio and spent the prime of her years with the love of her life, Molly Malone Cook, in New England. I could write of how private a woman she was, of how she loved her walks in nature, and I could try desperately to explain to you how beautiful her love story was and how similarly was her view of the world.

I won’t, though.

Mary is someone best known from your own eyes, with your heart open. With your mind ready for a balm from the rest of the world. I find that she is best met in quiet places; perhaps with soft grass underfoot, or smooth concrete; always with a spring nearby. Bring her into your one wild and precious life, and it is something you shall never be sorry for.

My love, it is my honor to introduce you to Mary.

so this is the world.

I’m not in it.

It is beautiful.


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