Mary Oliver

Photograph by Mariana Cook

Photograph by Mariana Cook

I was standing outside in the cold late last night. I was staring at the cider press my father rescued from a junkyard in Iowa and thinking about Mary Oliver’s death. Apples pass through the spinning gears that crush them into pulp.  As someone who writes poetry, the press seemed like an accurate description of the writing process…which is usually at least a good part horrifying. The horror was watching the death of what I formerly envision writing poetry to be: delicately slicing the apples of my ‘profound’ thoughts and stategically placing them into a Martha Stewart approved apple pie masterpiece. There were no spinning crushers.

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I was unable to look at this 160 year-old cast iron creation from any viewpoint other than that of the apple about to meet its end. It looked like it would fit in with the other devices of torture I saw in a museum in London. It was like a horrible roller coaster ride with the end of the ride being dismemberment. I know that there is also the viewpoint of those enjoying glasses of the freshest cider they have ever tasted…but I couldn’t seem to get to that perspective. I was stuck with the hopper that descended into dismemberment.

Earlier in the day, even before I had heard that Mary Oliver had died, I had been listening to an audio book on the history of spices. The Portuguese, when taking over the spice trade in India, had shut down their Arab competition by attacking them and then cutting off their ears, nose and hands. The spice trade was a way of making money. It was the oil of the time. But, I couldn’t get it out of my head that this torturous treatment of another human was part of the process of bringing flavor and spice back to Lisbon and Europe.

Yesterday was Thursday, which also happens to be the day I pick up freshly slaughtered pig heads to cut up for food. I would be lying if i said it was easy to cut apart another sentient creatures head. I tend to become really quiet. I think that those around me must assume I’m angry. I have to focus on my breath and have a conversation with the pig about how I will honor the gift of its body. I understand that this might be a foreign concept to people whose meat always comes wrapped on a styrofoam tray. But someone is killing and cutting up what we eat. I am always relieved when the smell of the pig has been boiled down into the smell of pork and delicious broth. There’s some comforting alchemy of amnesia that takes place. But,

I feel like my ability to maintain this amnesia is slipping. 

Mary Oliver writes often of paying attention. It is the first of her three ‘instructions for living’ from the poem “Sometimes.” That paying attention, brings with it the awareness that there is a deep pain and suffering that accompanies most of what arrives in your experience. It doesn’t matter is you eat meat or are a vegetarian…the suffering is integral to being fed. There is no way to not eat from the body of the world.

Mary was a master beggar with her bowl held out for alms of shiver-inducing beauty and awe. She was not one to force you to stick your fingers into her wounds even though you know a counterbalance must exist for this cantilevered, heeled-over ability to speak beauty. She didn’t even seem to require that you shared in the humility of her begging…she was begging for you.

There is something that seems too good to be true in this…I feel like the inmate being fed his last meal with Mary’s poems: unable to enjoy it because I can’t find the still point between savoring and the dreaded cost.

When I see Mary’s line “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” on a greeting card or poster it feels uplifting and buoyant. But If I go say this to myself ninety-nine times while staring in the mirror it is downright disturbing.

‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘to stretch’.

We are being asked to stretch so that we have a greater capacity to receive this life. Stretching has very little to do with comfort. Somewhere between the greeting card and the mirror is a boundary that has a toll booth. It is the toll that worries me. I am being asked to ‘pay.’ It is not simply ‘receive the beauty of this world that is your birthright’. There is a bartering. The origins of the word ‘pay’ speak to this:

The Old French verb meant, among other things, “to be reconciled to someone,” Oxford says, reflecting its classical Latin ancestor pacare (to appease or pacify), derived from pax (peace).

What offering or sacrifice have I brought to my one wild and precious life?

I don’t know.

I have heard my partner say many times that hatha yoga was initially developed as a way of paying attention. It was a vehicle not a destination. One stretched and focused on breath in order to meet reality in a fuller manner. But much of what yoga has come to be in the West is collapsing the vehicle into the destination.

I catch myself doing this with Mary’s poetry. I feel as though Mary cooked down the pig heads into broth for us. She used the depth of her wounds as an inkwell to describe the astonishing beauty of life. But her words also seem like the spices that showed up in Lisbon to add a depth to our meals…or the sweet apple cider that had endured a crushing to come by it’s sweetness. I wonder if she is rejecting the notion that she needs to disclose her wounds. Maybe she is saying: “stick you finger in your own wound.”

‘Be astonished’ is the second instruction Mary gives in “Sometimes.” ‘Astonished’ etymologically means to be thunderstruck.

Maybe this is the payment.


Being struck by experience in a way that you can hold onto nothing but the experience. Bowels loosed. Escape plans destroyed. José Ortega y Gasset, the Twentieth century Spanish philosopher, masterfully describes this:

“The man with the clear head is the man who freed himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth — that to live is to feel oneself lost — he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against reality.” — José Ortega y Gasset

Corsaire -Shipwreck by Gustav Dore

Corsaire -Shipwreck by Gustav Dore

Mary’s ship was wrecked early in her life. She saw in that chaos some flotsam called poetry. She declared it her salvation. She clung to it fiercely. She told about it (the third or her marching orders).

It is almost comical that Mary’s poetry can be sentimentalized into a tiny floating piece of sea ice about to glance off the starboard side of our listening vessel. Don’t fool yourself, there is a haunting mass below. I think she wants our ship to be wrecked…and for us to proceed through the world on the stories of our own wreck (not hers). You don’t have to take my word for it…go find a mirror and ask yourself ninety-nine times:

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”