Sunday, October 21, 2012

An Evening with Mary Oliver

The Kaufmann Concert Hall at 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue was packed last Monday night.  Packed with kindred spirits, waiting for a gentle poet, whose words ran through each of us.

She gingerly walked to center stage 
on bird-like legs, 
back slightly humped, 
gray hair tucked behind one ear,
wire-rimmed glasses 
the poet's eyes,
which see into 
what the rest of us
pass by.   

Mary Oliver, at seventy-seven, carried her latest book of poetry, A Thousand Mornings, to the lectern.

She thanked us for the welcome, took a sip of water, and apologized for her voice, husky from a cold.  She could have honked like one of her beloved Blackwater Pond geese, for all we cared.  We were in her presence, this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who rarely grants interviews, much less readings. She opened the slim volume and began.


Today I'm flying low and I'm 
not saying a word.
I'm letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I'm taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I'm traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness.  One of the doors 
into the temple.   

We laughed with Mary as she fumbled to find the right page numbers in her notes.  This wise woman, who puts words together with such grace, must have trouble finding her car keys and where her car is parked in the lot.  I felt comforted and in good company. . . about the fumblings.

With a feisty sense of humor, she joked, "If I don't read a poem from one of my earlier books, I'll get  slapped," and proceeded to read The Summer Day.
The last two lines challenge me every morning. . .

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

A collective sigh spread through the room as she read my favorite, The Journey, whose words embolden me with middle-age confidence. . .

". . . and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own, 
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save 
the only life you could save."

I sit today with Mary's new book beside me, her name autographed in purple ink on the title page.  I stood in line to get her signature, along with my friend, Margie.  Margie who happened to be visiting from Alaska, who happened to find the tickets online, and who happened to be the first person who ever told me about Mary Oliver.

Now, there's a poem waiting to be written.

** I invite you to read an essay I wrote in my blog Arkansas/Russian Reflections when we lived in Moscow titled, "Tolstoy's Pocket and Oliver's Pencils."



  1. How wonderful!

    I just love "wild and precious life". That. is. perfect.

  2. Isn't it? What a treasure her words are!

  3. I love those two Oliver poems too. Makes me want to print them out and hang them on my bathroom mirror . . . Maybe I will! How amazing to hear Mary Oliver say those powerful words.

  4. Good idea! Yes, I loved hearing her read her own writing, and her voice was surprisingly strong for such a petite person.


Web Analytics