On the Loss of Mary Oliver and Living Words

As a poet, I’m sure many of us have felt the gravity of the loss of Mary Oliver this week.

I read her poem “Wild Geese” in college and instantly felt a comforting balm move over my body. Learning that I didn’t have to be good, from a poet nonetheless, felt like the answer I was searching for all my life. Later on, my friend’s mother would lend me a copy of Leaf and Cloud, and I began to understand that Mary Oliver was an ecstatic listener, an admirer of all things, of every little thing. That was something I thought had been taught out of us as children. The curiosity embedded in the act of stopping to look and really see something.

When I found myself falling in love for the second time, I ran back to Oliver’s work. The woman that I loved reminded me so much of her; they both shared that wonder. I would leave her long messages of Oliver’s poems, I think, my way of saying “everything this woman is writing is love, I want you to feel that and to know that I love you” because words that aren’t poems are very hard for me.

Oliver taught me to see things, to train my eye, to explore the things that made me pause with either fear, confusion, or delight. For that I am eternally grateful.

One thing that I try to practice and preach in my life is the importance of reading. I read poets, both living and dead. I try to make it to as many poetry readings in my city as possible. I listen to poetry podcast during work because I find that it’s easy to dissociate when performing repetitive, mundane tasks. I try to encourage people who don’t think they would like poetry to at least read it, because there is no one poetic voice that is identical to another. Yes, their are schools and trends, but no poet is the same as no person is the same.

On hard nights, I go back to my collection of Louise Gluck poems. She too, I think, is a poet of profound sight. Her poems bring for me, a sharper, almost intellectual view that I found powerful and grounding.

I always run back to Emily Dickinson when I feel I need a lesson on form and concision.

Claudia Rankine sends a fire through my veins that I don’t perceive as anger, but my body leaning toward action on a cellular level.

I turn to Terrance Hayes, to Toi Derricotte, to Angel Nafis, to Wallace Stevens, to Lucille Clifton, to NIkola Madzirov, or Sylvia Plath.

Really, the beauty of poetry is that it is a language that lives. For me, everything else is stagnant. Even when the poet is gone, the language breathes.

I recently purchased Donika Kelly’s collection, “Bestiary” and from what I have seen so far it is truly mesmerizing. These tales of the melding of human and animal are so mythic and familiar. As a girl, I worried that there was something wrong with me, that I wasn’t quite human like all the other little girls around me. It was something that I was ashamed of. Now, through my own writing, my connection to particular animals and insects is a source of power.

Recently at work, it came up that I perform my poetry at events. The women I worked with balked because I’m so quiet; they laughed about how they weren’t brave enough to do something like that. In truth, poetry is the only space where I feel brave. I hope this doesn’t sound silly or offensive, but it feels like my first language. It’s hard to speak in the normal context of small talk, work talk, catching up. When someone asks me how I am doing, sometimes the answer is a poem. I am grateful and in awe of the poets that have come before me and those that are still hear with me, speaking that language proudly and in their own voices.