All Saints: Mary Oliver
Very few people can be credited with sufficient wonder.
Every generation goes about its business, forgetting to dust Earth’s neglected corners for divine fingerprints. With a little more time and intention, we might discover evidence of God everywhere.
Mary Oliver came closest to truly seeing God at every turn. A human magnifying glass, she scrutinized the most mundane phenomenon, then marveled at the hymns it sang. Nearly everyone who keeps company with the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet adopts her as patron saint of the wonderstruck.
Oliver testified to miracles made manifest during a walk in the rain; to the rapture of kisses opening like flowers. She stepped into a painting of four blue horses and nodded at kindred spirits in hermit crabs and kingfishers, turtles and loons.
She paid reverence to countless ponds—or perhaps to light and wind rippling a thousand ways across the same pond. The touch of “four warm, speckled eggs” within a nest ignited her from inside, the charge “more wonderful than all the electricity of New York City.”
In Oliver’s poems, every bush burned and every square inch was holy ground. The rocks she described never sat still, waiting for humans to make up their minds; they dutifully cried out in worship. If our hearts follow after our treasures, as Jesus told us, Oliver prized all of creation and lived with a heart the size of a cathedral.
The poem “I Wake Close to Morning,” published in 2015’s Felicity, encapsulates the wonder cultivated over her span of 83 years:
Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask,
“Is this the place?”
Oliver owed her ability to avoid that question, in part, to an uncommon understanding of time. In the final stanza of “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” she presents awe as an offering of recognition and repentance. The finitude of our existence presses upon her soul and the heart in her throat offers “thank yous” while it can.
Here, Oliver writes as one absorbed with “the luminous sprawl of gifts, / the hospitality of the Lord and my / inadequate answers as I row my beautiful, temporary body / through this water-lily world.”
Never beholden to one end of the pendulum or another, she also located herself in a longer conversation. The wonder fizzing within was safe to express and investigate because its object and origin arrived long before her—and would outlast her to eternity.
“Things take the time they take,” Oliver wrote in a verse which massages my anxious heart muscles, the ones which tell me I’ve hit has-been status at 39 or fear this moment is all there is. “Don’t worry. How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?”
Wonder comes to me using its quiet voice. I know it on nights I peer out my second-story window, tracing the flight pattern of snowflakes within a streetlight beam. Wonder lulls me to sleep as my body recreates the curve of my wife’s spine, and I hide myself like Moses in the cleft of the rock.
Awe makes its presence felt in the clipped breath John Coltrane draws before taking pulls from his tenor saxophone, blowing out an understanding of love supreme. It lives in the slip between falsetto and chest voice I hear within my favorite Bon Iver songs.
But to notice wonder is to see it tarnished. My heart sinks as quickly as it leaps, discouraged by the signs we miss, the people we damn, the moments when we forget to look up. The fine ash of anxiety and disillusionment settle and I mourn, craving something other than this seesaw rhythm.
I long to let Damascus Road light burn my eyes until every last scale falls away. I want to know what Oliver meant when she wrote, “Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
On the days I sift our collective sins and my many shortcomings—that is, nearly every day—I thumb the pages of an Oliver collection and can almost hear her voice. She sounds out these words like a saint slipping glossolalia into everyday conversation.
She wouldn’t know what to do with my question: Mary, what’s the secret to wonder? Rejecting the premise, her poems underline doubts and set scenes where even poets—especially poets?—succumb to life’s slow and steady weathering. In a piece like “The World I Live In,” she spins “I believe; help my unbelief” toward its most positive end: “Only if there are angels in your head will you / ever, possibly, see one.”
More than this, Oliver reminds me wonder is a spiritual discipline. Its gifts are nurtured in the same way contentment comes with fasting or softness comes with prayer. Yes, wonder strikes like lightning does. But it crashes upon hearts prepared and eager to welcome the storm.
Oliver discovered one of the prayers God always condescends to answer—the plea to see and sense more of him, to live fascinated. But she didn’t stop at having her prayers answered; asking God, she became an answer to our prayers.
She wrote to stoke the hearth of wonder, to teach our eyes and ears to soak up what often goes unnoticed. The poem and the poet are not summum bonum, she writes in “Flare,” but assume the shape of sacred vessels.
It wants to open itself,
like the door of a little temple,
so that you might step inside and be cooled and refreshed,
and less yourself than part of everything.
In his writing, Tim Keller reorients us to the true nature of miracles; they are not flukes or flickers, but momentary returns to the created order of things. Oliver takes the same angle on wonder. We don’t process it perpetually, just like we don’t perceive miracles breaking through each and every day.
But it is, as her poems teach, the natural state of the heart. Wonder brands our souls at their purest, our bodies at their most attuned.
Oliver’s work teases out a day in which wonder is creation’s default setting; with every phrase and line break, she reminds us of promises that are being kept—and of a return to Eden where everything sings the name of the one who made it.
Where to begin with Mary Oliver:
Anywhere and everywhere. Because I regularly post about Oliver on social media, and honor her work with a reading every Monday, I field this question often. Truth is, there is no wrong place to start. You might do what I did, starting with more recent books like Felicity or 2012’s A Thousand Mornings, then work your way backwards.
You might start with a superlative collection like Red Bird (2008), which houses essential pieces like “Mornings at Blackwater,” “Of the Empire” and “Sometimes,” which distills all of Oliver’s work into a single thesis: “Instructions for living a life: / Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.”
Or start with the poem “Wild Geese.” Starting with “Wild Geese” is like finding Leonard Cohen through “Hallelujah” or Springsteen through “Thunder Road.” It might be trite, but who cares? The weight, or lack thereof, in these words recalibrates everything:
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.