Friday, May 1, 2020

Wild Fridays #17: The Living Dead


My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

In whatever sense she meant that last line, perhaps not even Mary Oliver would be thinking now that we live forever – not even as a species ... not even, perhaps, the planet as a whole. (She left us before the fires in Australia last year, or the plague throughout the whole world this year.)

And yet, I doubt she was referring to physical mortality; but rather, perhaps, an experience of the ineffable.

In any case, it's been a long April – for some of us gamely producing a poem a day, and for all of us dealing with the strange new reality we inhabit of lockdowns and compulsive hand-washing, sudden loss of income for many, and the horrifying numbers of the sick and dead.

I won't dwell more on the facts of the pandemic; we all know them too well by now. And those of us who have been responding to poetry prompts this April (applause, applause! take a bow) have oftentimes touched on aspects of the pandemic. How could we not? Though some, at least some of the time, have turned to more positive subject matter as a counter-balance; often the beauty and soothing powers of nature.

I thought we could all use a little more of that at this point. For me, no-one does it better than Mary Oliver. I well remember coming across her book, House of Light in a library in 1993, my first discovery of her work. I was completely enraptured, indeed amazed. I have had no cause to respond any differently since. She never disappoints. She always uplifts.

She did her work well, of loving the world. And she wrote of it for us, so that we can do it too. The world has not been entirely devastated yet; even the human race has not been annihilated yet, nor succeeded in destroying everything else. There are still plums, in the right season; there are still hummingbirds somewhere, and sunflowers, and clams. If I stay alive long enough, I'll know a few more years of them, and of moths, pastures, etc.

Just for now, after this long and often frightening April, I invite you to stop, take a moment, and let the late Mary Oliver (who will live as long as there are readers) remind you how to love the world while it exists and we are here in it.

As she said memorably in another poem ('The Summer Day'):

'I do know how to pay attention ...
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?'

and (say it with me)

'Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?'


Photo © Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2019. (I've posted pictures of Mary herself at other times I've featured her. I thought this post called for an image of the natural world. I hope it doesn't matter that this is the Australian rather than the American outdoors.)

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 for sharing this Mary Oliver poem, Rosemary, it’s one I hadn’t read before and it speaks to me very clearly. It seems to me she wrote it later in life, which is where I am too, which I picked up in the lines:
    ‘Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
    Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
    keep my mind on what matters’.
    I especially love that her work is ‘mostly standing still and learning to be astonished’ – my kind of work.
    I also love the idea that gratitude is
    ‘…given a mind and a heart
    and these body-clothes,
    a mouth with which to give shouts of joy’.
    I agree that she probably wasn’t referring to physical mortality in that last line; I think it has to be the words of gratitude to be found in poetry.

    1. Something like `Shakespeare's 'So long lives this, and this gives life to thee'?
      Funny, I was already thinking that her poetic longevity might be akin to his.

    2. PS You yourself are a marvellous poet of nature and the contemplation of it. It's no surprise that you identify with her work of standing still and being astonished.

  2. I have loved Mary Oliver’s poetry for years. When I began my new life here in the woods, her words taught me how to appreciate my surroundings. I would try to look at my leafy home through her learned eyes. She has helped me to see more clearly.

  3. I too like Mary Oliver and her work. We all do to some extent give her accolades. I've had many her books checked out, she wrote a nice poetry writing manual. But by the time I found her I was part way through Ken Kooser's "poetry Repair Manuel", which later I bought.
    Thank you for sharing this Poem, when I got to the old boots and torn coat I decided she was writing as the gardener would.
    Australia is a beautiful country. I loved the animal variety with lots of cuddly ones. We visited an animal rescue farm in Tasmania, I have on my other blog a picture of Mrs. Jim feeding a roo out of her hand. But I doubt we will return. This 2013 visit was an NZ and Aus cruise plus four after in Sydney with a lot of pleasant memories of the countries resulting.
    Thank you again for your posts here and congratulations on finishing your 30 daily poems.

    1. Congratulations to you, too, Jim. We all did well, didn't we?

      I remember when you did that cruise. I'm glad you and Mrs Jim liked Tassie. I grew up there, and even though I don't want to live there now, I still love the place. However, the photo was taken in Victoria, when I was down there over xmas. (My goodness, xmas seems a long time ago now, doesn't it – before the virus?)

  4. That memorable line has been part of my blog design for years ... resting under the photo of my beloved family.

    1. it's so very deservedly memorable. I think it hit home for many, many of us when we first encountered it. A challenge, but not an aggressive one. Rather, one feels the force and rightness of what she suggests, like a revelation.

  5. Perfect choice of poet, Rosemary. Mary Oliver is indeed a treasure. I no longer see the rest of my life, aside from writing. I am far from the only one who is trying to survive with a spouse with dementia. I feel selfish for feeling trapped, andperhaps I’d have an easier time with it if the marriage had been good. Sorry for the rant. Time to read some Mary Oliver!

    1. If anyone can make you feel better for a little while, she can! Don't apologise. That wasn't a rant, but a needful expression of feelings that needed release – expressed truthfully and reasonably, moreover. Even when marriages have been good, that particular situation can be very hard. I've seen it. I suppose you have researched what support services may be available to take some of the strain off you? I know from personal experience that in this situation it is very important that you keep up your writing, and your connection to the online poetic community – which you are doing, so that's good. I hope Mary and your own poetry keep sustaining you.

  6. That was just the perfect article and poem to read on this gorgeous May morning after reading a round-up of the latest stupidity inflicted upon us by the idiot-in-chief. It seems in these times the beautiful and horrible are going to be bumping up against each other quite often.

    1. Happy to have provided a bit of the beautiful for you today!

    2. LOL, I ended up ordering a big fat book of her poetry from my local bookshop. I've been meaning to get it for some time now, but decided it would be a lovely Beltane gift to myself :D

  7. Thank you for bringing us to Mary Oliver's gentle and wise perspective on life, Rosemary. She's one of my favorite poets. I love her quote "Sometimes I need only to stand where I am to be blessed." All too seldom we fail to count blessings!

    1. That is indeed a wonderful quote. And an important reminder.

  8. Thank you so much for featuring Mary Oliver this week, Rosemary!💘 Her gentle verse is exactly what I needed to read. Especially love; "to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever."💘

    1. I thought it was what we all need to read just now. So glad I was right!

  9. Weirdly, or perhaps not weirdly at all, I've been rereading Mary Oliver. Like you say, the time feels right for her work--we need hope with reality in it, and no one is better than her when it comes to that.


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