September 10, 1935 – Mary Oliver:
And now I understand something so frightening-
how the mind clings to the road it knows,
rushing through crossroads, sticking
like lint to the familiar.
Mary Oliver published her first collection of poems when she was 28-years-old, 57 years ago, and of the many awards she’s won include the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive (1984) and the National Book Award for New And Selected Poems (1992).
At 17-years-old, Oliver made a pilgrimage to the home of her hero, Edna St. Vincent Millay in upstate New York where she made friends with the late poet’s sister Norma Millay. For the next decade she lived on and off with Norma Millay.
Oliver attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College in the 1950s, but never graduated. She began publishing her poems in little magazines and literary journals and slowly built a reputation.
In the late 1950s, Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook on a return visit to the Millay home. The two became an inseparable couple. They were together for more than four decades, until 2005, when Cook was taken by that damn cancer.
In 2016, she published a collection of essays titled Upstream. Most of these pieces have been published before but reshuffled here so they serve as a kind of memoir.
Oliver was America’s best-selling poet, which needs to be remembered the next time you think it’s impossible for a poet to be out of the closet, create queer work, and still have mainstream success.
Not counting my two childhood dogs, as an adult with my husband, I have had to say goodbye to four terriers: Baby Dog, Little Sister, Butch and Larry. I have gone through this four times now, and it has never gotten easier. In fact, it is so painful, that each time, I have had no idea what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to move on. Heartbroken, I would listened to sad songs, drink and cry.
I read Oliver’s Dog Songs (2013), her beautiful collection of poetry and short prose that someone sent me anonymously.
If you have ever lost a pet, you know that it feels like losing a part of your family, a part of yourself even, and research has shown that the death of a dog and the emotional, mental, and physical distress that follows is comparable to the death of a much-loved human. Yet, there is no easy way to grieve your dog’s death, and our culture doesn’t provide us with a way to mourn the loss, especially when people say things like ”it’s just a dog”.
Dog Songs celebrates the connection between people and their canines. There are funny pieces about daily life with dogs, words about the kind of love and affection dogs give, and smart reflections on the way four-legged friends change the way we see the world, and what they can teach us about love, life, and ourselves.
In Little Dog’s Rhapsody In The Night, Oliver considers a dog’s desire for human affection, and the happiness humans get by giving them our love:
‘He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
‘Tell me you love me,’ he says.
‘Tell me again. ‘
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.
In The Sweetness Of Dogs, Oliver writes about how humans are their dogs’ entire world:
…thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich it is to love the world, he leans against me and gazes up into my face. As though I were just as wonderful as the perfect moon.
Oliver addresses the sorrow over the loss of a dog, whose life, like all dogs, is tragically short:
Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.
‘Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?
Oliver is also a splendid essayist and after several appearances in Best American Essays 1996, 1998 and 2001. She edited the annual collection in 2009.
In Our World, an essay about losing Cook after four decades together, Olive wrote “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble“. Cook was Oliver’s literary agent. They made their home in Provincetown for 45 years, and where Oliver continued to live until moving to Florida in 2015. Guarding her personal privacy, Oliver gave very few interviews, saying she preferred for her writing to speak for itself. Of Provincetown, one of the loveliest places on our pretty planet, she recalls:
I too fell in love with the town, that marvelous convergence of land and water; Mediterranean light; fishermen who made their living by hard and difficult work from frighteningly small boats; and, both residents and sometime visitors, the many artists and writers. M. and I decided to stay.
Mary Oliver was taken on Thursday by lymphoma, at her home in Florida. She was 83-years-old. In her poem When Death Comes, Oliver wrote:
When it’s over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement.