‘Never Catch Me Idly Kicking a Stone…’

Poet Mary Oliver finds peace and gratitude in nature after life’s losses

October 24, 2012

Poet Mary Oliver speaks in much the same way that she writes. Which is to say that the 77-year-old Pulitzer and National Book Award winner drops phrases in casual conversation that can stop your breath.

“I’m going to die one day. I know it’s coming for me, too,” she says. “I’ll be a mountain, I’ll be a stone on the beach. I’ll be nourishment.”

The reclusive Oliver doesn’t give many interviews, preferring to live very privately near Provincetown, Mass., where she’s made her home for nearly 50 years — most of them with her lifelong partner, Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. She communicates through her poetry — 29 books including her newest, “A Thousand Mornings,” released this month.

People latch on to her poems in an intensely personal way that surprised her at first. “Wild Geese,” from 1986’s “Dream Work,” is one of those:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

“That poem strikes many people,” she says. “I didn’t realize it would when I wrote it. I learn a lot about my poems when I read them by the way people respond to them. People need to remember that there is always a family of things, especially when they haven’t got a good one of the usual kind.”

Oliver, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984 with her sixth volume, “American Primitive,” has always been one for effusive professions of thankfulness. (“When it’s over, I want to say: All my life/I was a bride married to amazement./I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms,” she wrote in 1992’s “When Death Comes.”) Yet what stands out about “A Thousand Mornings” is its cohesiveness in that theme. It is full of references to prayer, spinning Sufis and the Buddhist concept of “right action.”

One new poem, “I Happened To Be Standing,” ponders, “Does the opossum pray as it/crosses the street? … I thought of the wren’s singing, what could this be/if it isn’t a prayer?”

“I think of [13th-century Persian poet] Rumi’s line, ‘There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground,’” Oliver says. “Animals praise a good day, a good hunt. They praise rain if they’re thirsty. That’s prayer. They don’t live an unconscious life, they simply have no language to talk about these things. But they are grateful for the good things that come along.”

At times, it feels as though the creatures who have been Oliver’s lifelong friends and neighbors are speaking through her in these poems.

“To tell you the truth, I believe everything — tigers, trees, stones — are sentient in one way or another,” she says. “You’d never catch me idly kicking a stone, for example.”

Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; with former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, Sun., 3 p.m., $45-$75; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)
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Rudi Greenberg · October 24, 2012