Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize-Winning poet and ardent devotee of the natural world throughout her life, has passed away from lymphoma at the age of 83.
Oliver’s first book of poetry, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published when she was 28; she won the Pulitzer for her fifth, American Primitive. Her favorite subject was nature and the various complicated lessons found there; the AP notes that “One of her favorite adjectives was “perfect,” and rarely did she apply it to people.” Her writing practice involved long walks in the woods, which she described as “successful” when they ended in her stopping to write — she hid pencils in the trees of the local woods so she would never be caught without one while hiking. In a rare interview — Oliver was notoriously reserved about her personal life — with Maria Shriver, she shared that she had survived sexual abuse in childhood, an experience that she described as leaving her wanting “to be invisible,” and which she became more open to exploring in her work later in life.
Oliver met Molly Malone Cook, a photographer, in the 1950s; the two were partners for more than forty years, making a life together in the longtime gay haven of Provincetown, MA where Cook worked as Oliver’s literary agent. Cook passed away in 2005; asked how she dealt with her partner’s death, Oliver answered simply, “I was very, very lonely.”
Even when Molly got ill, I knew what to do. They wanted to take her off to a nursing home, and I said, “Absolutely not.” I took her home. That kind of thing is not easy… I had decided I would do one of two things when she died. I would buy a little cabin in the woods, and go inside with all my books and shut the door. Or I would unlock all the doors—we had always kept them locked; Molly liked that sense of safety—and see who I could meet in the world. And that’s what I did. I haven’t locked the door for five years. I have wonderful new friends. And I have more time to be by myself. It was a very steadfast, loving relationship, but often there is a dominant partner, and I was very quiet for 40 years, just happy doing my work. I’m different now.
Oliver’s most famous and widely shared poem, “Wild Geese,” combines the themes that in many ways defined her life as a staunch advocate of the natural wild and a survivor: allowing oneself forgiveness and softness, weaning oneself off of self-recrimination, finding solace and perspective in the rhythms of the natural world. Perhaps her most oft-quoted line is from “The Summer Day” — Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”. Asked in 2011 what she had done with her one wild and precious life, Oliver said “I used up a lot of pencils.”
Mary Oliver was a hugely influential and urgently necessary poet to many, including countless readers to whom poetry as an institution was often inaccessible or opaque; her words provided comfort, joy and respite to generations. It’s hard to know what to say to appropriately honor her life; luckily, Mary Oliver has already done the work of providing some thoughts on her passing in her poem “When Death Comes.”
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