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Provocation #5: Mary Oliver: Beg, Borrow, and Be Inspired

By Gillian Kessler:

Who better to celebrate the center of summer with than Mary Oliver? Oliver, who passed away this past year, is an exceptional observer of the natural world. Her poems thrive in a stillness, in details, in looking closely to find some solace. I remember when I was first introduced to her; I was in the poetry section of the Bookshop Santa Cruz alone and a bit angsty. This trippy stranger came up to me and asked, “Do you know Oliver?” I looked up, startled and shy and said, “No.” He handed me a poem about peonies and I was riveted:


This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open — pools of lace,

white and pink — and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes into the curls, craving the sweet sap, taking it away

to their dark, underground cities — and all day under the shifty wind, as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies, and tip their fragrance to the air, and rise, their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness

gladly and lightly, and there it is again — beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open. Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,

their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever?

Mary Oliver


I had never stepped into the world of a natural wonder so firmly. I had never been transported that way, in the dusty back corner of the bookshop, to a field or a stream or a sea. I bought her book and soon, page after page became dog-eared; each new moment, be it with anenomies or poppies, deer or a black snake, filled me with a slow and remarkable gratitude.

Mary Oliver is a not just a poet, but a prophet, not just of words, but a way of life.

So go for it. Go outside. Lay down in the grass. Be still. Listen. Feel the sun on your eyelids. Breathe in all the glorious scents around you. Then read a Mary Oliver poem (or ten). Choose the one that speaks to you the most in that moment. Circle no more than ten words or short phrases that stand out to you. Then write a response to her words, almost as if you were in conversation, weaving her language into your own work. A few of the poems below serve as excellent starting points. If you end up crafting something you are really proud of, give her credit and feel inspired!


The Summer Day

Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean — the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down — who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver


Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Mary Oliver


The Sun

Have you ever seen


in your life

more wonderful

than the way the sun,

every evening,

relaxed and easy,

floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,

or the rumpled sea,

and is gone —

and how it slides again

out of the blackness,

every morning,

on the other side of the world,

like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,

say, on a morning in early summer,

at its perfect imperial distance —

and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love —

do you think there is anywhere, in any language,

a word billowing enough

for the pleasure

that fills you,

as the sun

reaches out,

as it warms you

as you stand there,

empty-handed —

or have you too

turned from this world —

or have you too

gone crazy

for power,

for things?

Mary Oliver

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