R.I.P., Mary Oliver

It happens this way …

Few poets have captured the poetic imaginations of readers around the world like Mary Oliver. Her passing today at the age of 83 unleashed an out-pouring of sentiments from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Madonna to a dear neighbor across the street. Millions of accolades to this extraordinary woman will no doubt continue.

Of all the things already being reported about Mary, what touched me deeply were the comments she made about her partner of more than 40 years, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005.

Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything — but a few things, which I will tell. M. had will and wit and probably too much empathy for others; she was quick in speech and she did not suffer fools. When you knew her she was unconditionally kind. But also, as our friend the Bishop Tom Shaw said at her memorial service, you had to be brave to get to know her.

“You had to be brave to get to know her”: What a commentary on the task everyone in a committed relationship — or a deep friendship relationship – has. I’ll be pondering that for a long time to come.

I’m throwing my poetic hat into the ring of praise for Mary with a poem inspired by her.

Here’s to you, Mary!

You do not have to be good.

– Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

Ain’t that a kick in the head!

After all the bunk about straights and narrows,

wrongs and rights, confessionals

where venial sins are laughable,

it’s come down to this: we’ve been duped.

Friday fish, forty fasting days, crownings

in the Mary month of May; rosaries,

callused knees, indulgences that smudge

our sins: they don’t add up to good.

Neither do tidy rooms, top grades in school,

nor mandatory modesty.


So let’s delete the snake behind the apple tree

and every bite of stale theology.

Let’s resurrect original wildness

and ramble through valleys scratched and scarred,

down unquiet streams, across raging fields

of blooms disguised as weeds.

Let’s celebrate every fleshy flaw,

each mistaken thought that turns out true.

Let’s race wild geese to the nearest star,

cheering on imperfect

nakedness with disheveled glee.



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