Friday, February 28, 2020

Wild Fridays #8: The Living Dead



I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
        full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.


You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it’s not really
hard. The whole business of
what’s reality and what isn’t has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don’t care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That’s a place
you just can’t get into, not
entirely anyway, other people’s

I’ll just leave you with this.
I don’t care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It’s
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance. 

Watering the Stones

Every summer I gather a few stones from
the beach and keep them in a glass bowl.
Now and again I cover them with water,
and they drink. There’s no question about
this; I put tinfoil over the bowl, tightly,
yet the water disappears. This doesn’t
mean we ever have a conversation, or that
they have the kind of feelings we do, yet
it might mean something. Whatever the
stones are, they don’t lie in the water
and do nothing.

Some of my friends refuse to believe it
happens, even though they’ve seen it. But
a few others—I’ve seen them walking down
the beach holding a few stones, and they
look at them rather more closely now.
Once in a while, I swear, I’ve even heard
one or two of them saying “Hello.”
Which, I think, does no harm to anyone or
anything, does it?

– By Mary Oliver (1935-2019)
(These poems are not in the book pictured here; I chose it because her photo is on the cover.)

There are times for facing up to the serious problems of the world, and trying to figure out what we can do to create change. And then there are other times when we long for some moments of peace, to remember all the lovely things there are about the world and what it is that we want to preserve if we can; even, perhaps, to contemplate spiritual mysteries, believing in powers for good beyond the immediately apparent.

Finding myself in that second mood, I had a yen for the poetry of Mary Oliver, who so delights in the natural world and reveals it to us with unsurpassed beauty. I own several of her books, but I found these particular poems online (as part of an article on her work by Alex Luppens-Dale at a site called Book Riot). They all have the gentleness and wonder which I craved. 

The first is grounded in the natural world, showing us how to pay close attention to its details, to learn about its truths and mysteries. She is a master at showing us how the factual is also, simultaneously, miraculous. The fact that in this piece the wonder resides in broken, damaged things seems appropriate just now – a necessary reminder, in our troubled times, that it can be so.

And then the next two deal almost matter-of-factly with the mystical/magical in a way that I find absolutely engaging. Well, it happens that I am one for whom angels exist and stones are sentient beings – but even if not, I think I might find these poems delightfully persuasive.

Reading Mary Oliver always seems calming, somehow, at the same time as it awakens me to boundless possibilities. Entertaining the idea of dancing angels, contemplating stones that drink, or piecing together the meaning in broken shells – all these suddenly seem valid, worthy pursuits, just as important as worrying about all the serious practical matters which demand our attention.

Do we need poems like these as a temporary relief from more disturbing preoccupations, a means of restoring ourselves so as to go on trying to cope and find answers? Or are the things Oliver engages with the very things which make the state of the planet – and humanity – matter?

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright).


  1. Thank you, Rosemary, I read and have been enjoying Oliver's three poems you put in here. I had her poetry handbook (how to write poetry) for quite some time when I self studied the writing aspect. However I chose Ken Kooser to model from using his handbook instead. He seemed nearer and more down to earth being a Nebraska fellow than did Mary.
    Mary was my age, a couple of years younger, so she identified from that "link" more so than did Ken. I loved the idea of her living rocks, I am glad that they talked with her. Many, over a million sold, here in the U.S. had pet rocks in the mid 70's. They may have reached the Aus as well. I wasn't into poetry back then but I suppose a few wrote to or of them. Wikipedia tells their story.

    1. Oh yes, we had the pet rocks here in Australia too. I never went that far myself, though I do love rocks and stones.

  2. I always find something apt or pertinent in Mary Oliver’s poetry, Rosemary, as well as the beauty and the calming effect of her words. I enjoyed all three poems you chose for this article but, being a fellow lover of the natural world, especially the coast, I love ‘Breakage’, from the title, to the list of things that can be seen on the beach, and the perfect ending. She uses such gorgeous phrases, such as ‘the cusp of the whelk’ and ‘broken cupboard of the clam’, and my favourites: ‘nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split’ and ‘the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop / full of moonlight’. I agree that the wonder in broken, damaged things fits the current mood. ‘Watering the Stones’ appeals to me too, as this is something I used to do with unusual and beautiful stones.

    1. Yes, she does indeed find gorgeous phrases. I love the seashore too, but ours where I live are rather different from what she describes and you know. I find her description (and many of yours too) fascinating.

  3. Thank you for bringing us Oliver this morning,Rosemary. She's one of my favorites. Some days, after watching the news and reading the latest rather dark entries on my poetry sites, I find myself feeling a bit "down", and it takes an Oliver poem to bring my emotional balance wheel back in synch! I'm an eternal optimist, and I think it's important what we feed our brains. People are, I think, somewhat like the stones … thirsty. Thank you again for a pleasant start to my Friday!

    1. You're very welcome! I think everyone needs a dose of Mary Oliver now and then. She doesn't do fake or shallow, but in telling it like it is – and doing it so superbly – she spreads light, I think.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing Mary Oliver's poetry with us, Rosemary! I find her language to be incredibly simple yet exquisite. We need poems like these from time to time .. to read, to discern and to fully grasp what they have to offer. 💝💝

    1. Yes, even though she is a great favourite, I find that her poetry seems to reveal something new at each re-reading, and is in any case so beautiful that I never tire of it.

  5. Oh, I so needed to read these pieces today. Mary Oliver does have a way of nudging us to connect with the simple enchantment of the world. As for your questions, my answer is yes to both. I know that reading these three bits was both the quiet I needed in the storm and fuel for the next fight.

    1. Thank you, Rommy. I'm so glad they filled your need. And thank you for answering the questions – with the best possible answer! (Any answer to them must of course be personal, but I certainly hope everyone could say the same. I think her talent and truth were such a great gift to the world.)

  6. I've saved this up for Sunday reading, Rosemary! Thank you for introducing me to yet, another treasure.

  7. "Watering the Stones" is one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems. And it's perfect for me right now--because I, too, find myself in the second mood you describe.

    And the answer to your final question is yes. When things get tough, I read and write poetry and prose that lift me up (and if I'm lucky, that lift others, too). Solace can usually be found in the gardens of creativity and imagination.

    Thank you for this one, Rosemary.

    1. I think we who love poetry, and beautiful prose too – both the reading and the writing of – are extremely blessed. My life would have been so much poorer without that love.

  8. I'm glad I came back to read this. I love Mary Oliver for her calm, wise observations of the mystical as well as the tangible. I enjoyed rereading the poems you selected.

    1. I'm glad you did too – and I'm glad you're glad. (Smile.)

  9. A lovely tribute to a wonderful poet. I agree with you, Rosemary, I find Mary Oliver's work so calming … transcendent, at times … which is probably why she is a favorite of mine. Thanks for this.

    1. I think we are among the many. How lucky we are that she left us such a legacy.


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