I unapologetically love Mary Oliver’s work. In fact, if one were to ask me who my favorite poets are,, I always say, Mary Oliver and Tupac, in that order. At 83 years old, Mary Oliver passed away yesterday, and now, I like to imagine that my two favorite poets are out there in the aether somewhere, having a very interesting conversation about All Of It. The image makes me very emotional, actually. Mary Oliver was a Virgo and born in a Pluto in Cancer generation, Tupac was a Gemini/Cancer cusp and born during a Pluto in Virgo generation (the Pluto placement in your natal chart indicates what your subconscious drives are). In other words, two Mercurial signs, one put here to nurture the world and make it feel at home with itself, and the other put here to help the world pay closer attention to its self-destructive tendencies through tough love…that would be a remarkable conversation….
I have all of my poetry workshops read a little of both, with an emphasis on Mary Oliver. Her work has historically been critically bashed around by a lot of folks (mostly male critics), and yet, she somehow won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award without their approval. In fact, as a poet, Mary Oliver has already written everything this whipper-snapper Virgo lady poet obsessed with the oak tree and midnight deer in her front yard, would ever want to. Every poem reads like a prayer. She makes the natural world sacrosanct and yet also accessible. It’s so simple. So simple. And her words soothe in the way that Rumi’s do, or Gibran’s. There’s something of the sibyl there, something of the sublime, as experienced through the everyday.
Not all of my students see themselves in her work. Last year, when I had my graduate class read “Wild Geese” and copy it word for word, a practice I find very useful to do on occasion—literally embodying where the poet pauses, a couple of my women students who are undoubtedly in the Pluto in Scorpio generation (they just want to blow the roof off the sucker, okay? Pluto in Scorpio gen young people just wanna burn it all down lol) wrote response poems later that basically said “Shut the hell up you old ass white woman, out there in your blackwater woods being all high and mighty with your geese and your grasshoppers eating sugar out of your hand. How dare you? When’s the last time you—” And on and on. I was shocked at how offended they were at Oliver’s work. Just shut it down immediately. It’s still kind of a head-scratcher. Like, how can you read a MO poem and redeem nothing from it? Are you alive? Are you a person? Do you have a pulse? An imagination?
But, I suppose it takes all kinds.
For me, it didn’t hit me until today that she’s gone. Not like it did when we found out Sister Aretha (Aries) or Brother Stan Lee (Cap) had passed on. It’s just here now, like the snow that hadn’t fallen last night when I went to bed and I woke up to a world that is all white and gray and silent. That’s exactly what it feels like to know her living voice is gone. I feel like we do need new stories and new voices, but it feels like in the last year, so many of my imagination’s greatest heroes are one at a time saying “Goodbye because the world doesn’t need us anymore—at least not in the same way.” What makes someone’s work a classic? I think a person’s work becomes classic when we continue to need it, generation after generation to gauge how far we’ve come and how far we have left to expand. It’s work that continues to grow with us. Like when you read or watch something as a kid and you’re still discovering applicable qualities to it as an adult.
Like any good Virgo, (the Florence Nightingales of the zodiac), Mary Oliver’s work never tells us overtly what truth to live or how to live. She quietly and efficiently again and again, poem after poem, asks us to remember why we live. Even if we don’t live the same way as she, she compels us to, in our own way, pay attention: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” It’s odd…I just can’t help but feel like I lost a really good friend, and I can’t entirely wrap my head around it. Too, this poem by Dick Allen, a contemporary of Oliver’s keeps coming to mind.
So. That said, rest in power, Mary Oliver. Whatever field you bloom in next, may it be worthy. And one day, may we be worthy enough to join you (and Tupac) there.