Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Lesbian Poet, Is Dead at 83

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

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1073 articles for us.

25 Comments

    • PS I also love her reply after the pencils comment —

      Maria Shriver: One line of yours I often quote is, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” What do you think you have done with your one wild and precious life?

      Mary Oliver: I used up a lot of pencils.

      Maria Shriver: [Laughs.]

      Mary Oliver: What I have done is learn to love and learn to be loved. That didn’t come easy. And I learned to consider my life an amazing gift. Those are the things.

  1. <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

    Thank you for this. "She hid pencils in the trees of the local woods so she would never be caught without one while hiking" and "Asked in 2011 what she had done with her one wild and precious life, Oliver said “I used up a lot of pencils.”" just gives me so many feels. What an excellent tribute to a writer and person I admire greatly.

  2. I’m crying at my desk at work, pals. After dropping out of college because I was afraid if I stayed there any longer I’d hang myself from one of the many trees on campus, I came home and spent an afternoon painting The Summer Day onto my bedroom closet door. I found Oliver’s poetry early during high school and she reminded me to be brave and strong and to love openly and freely and to always take time to dip your toes into the grass and to live. She taught me to live. I hope wherever she goes next there are dogs and trees and hiking trails and ocean tides and lots of love. Rest in peace <3
    Thank you for this tribute.

  3. Oh this is heartbreaking. Her work meant so much to me. Reading Wild Geese for the first time was a revelation. It gave me permission to live, to be, and those first few lines about repentance hit the recovering Catholic in me especially hard. Re-reading it now and it still gets me.

    Thank you for so much for this beautiful homage.

  4. oh goshagollee! So glad to be alive on time for her poems & her life. Just memorized Wild Geese & I’m gonna make art out of the poem Heather shared recently for my brave friend saving the only life she can 🙂 This is the best place to hear this news – thank you Rachel.

  5. I’m sad to hear this news of her passing. But so grateful for the many gifts of words she put into the world.

    A line from her poem “The Sunflowers” helped/has been helping me, especially through the messy first part of my coming out:

    each of them, though it stands
    in a crowd of many,
    like a separate universe,

    is lonely, the long work
    of turning their lives
    into a celebration
    is not easy.

  6. Thank you for this, Rachel. Here is my favorite poem of hers, from Our World, about Molly Malone Cook:

    The Whistler

    All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
    I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
    whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
    in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
    she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
    cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
    bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

    Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she
    said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
    still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
    through the house, whistling.

    I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-
    kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
    And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
    to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
    for thirty years?

    This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

  7. Thank you so much for writing this, Rachel. Scrolling through Twitter today I noticed a few people saying, “I always felt people judging me for loving Mary Oliver…” and I honestly felt so fucking grateful to be queer because I have never ever ever met a queer person who has judged anyone for loving Mary Oliver, we all just love(d) her, because she was so powerful in her honesty, and without sounding snarky or weird it just made me feel really grateful and happy to be part of such a large legacy of creative joyful awe inspiring and inspired women.

    Thanking Mary for everything she gave us <3

  8. Thank you Rachel for writing this tribute and Laneia for linking it in the newsletter.

    I don’t know if this is the place or time to say this, but somehow, I had gotten to this moment without having known of or read the work of Mary Oliver. But after reading (and rereading) the poems mentioned here, all I can say is THANK YOU for the introduction. Thank you and Rest In Peace, Mary Oliver.

  9. Lovely moving article. I love Wild Geese and I need to read more of her poems. Thank you Heather for introducing me to Mary Oliver.

    I don’t think I had read or heard that Mary Oliver was gay until she died, but I knew. She had that quality of calm acceptance and love that a lot of older queer women have, which maybe comes from men not being a part of your understanding of yourself and maybe from living through when it was (even more) difficult to be gay.

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