Once for new year’s, I received a greeting card from my English teacher with a note tucked in between. It was a time when commercialisation was yet to encroach the spaces between people. When time was a luxury people had. When greeting cards were hand made and mail came in envelopes. It was the time when postcards were precious and stamp collection was well, still a hobby.
The note read:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do— Mary Oliver
with your one wild and precious life?”
Not sure what I wanted to do with my life or who I wished to be, the lost lad that I was, marvelled at the words. I was engrossed in the note when I met the ire of jealous seniors.
A fair decade in between and if you discount what I quote at interviews, I still am clueless as to what I want.
It was way later in the sophomore year that I first read Mary Oliver, the 77-year-young Pulitzer Prize winner and America’s best-selling poet. Having carved herself a life little far from the urban humdrum, her poems too, the breath of an escape. In her work, Mary Oliver thoroughly explores every emotion, delving into our internal battles with courage and fear. Mary Oliver’s prose serves as a balm, an exquisite reminder of life’s essential truths. Her words emerge amidst the chaos of existence, gently guiding one to the serene sanctuary within.
In the woods, accompanied by her pet ‘Percy’, who she named after the famous 18th-century Romantic poet Percy Shelley, she assigned new meanings to the world.
Here are four of my favourite Mary Oliver dog poems
I. 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,
call to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
II. Excerpt from In Blackwater Woods
“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
And as for the answer to how to live a life, Mary Oliver’s best friend Percy, the dog gives the simplest mantra ever:
III. I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life
“Love, love, love says Percy.
And run as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.
Then, go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
IV. The Storm
Now through the white orchard my little dog
romps, breaking the new snow
with wild feet.
Running here running there, excited,
hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon
in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
the pleasures of the body in this world.
Oh, I could not have said it better
Like words scribbled neatly in her notebook, lost lads like me seek refuge in not knowing what the journey is all about, but setting forth.
As for the note, I still have it as a cherished bookmark.
In the midst of life’s most trying junctures, Mary Oliver’s words became my sanctuary. Her prose, stripped of excess, resonates with a poignant simplicity—a richness that never cloys, like Ruskin Bond’s. The true hallmark of artistic genius lies in the seamless grace with which one infuses their creations, and in this, Oliver undeniably excelled. In Mary Oliver’s eyes, every facet of existence found its place of reverence; be it the caress of love, the cunning foxes, or the sweet tang of fruit, to the enigmatic moles, and the embrace of death. Her prose flowed with a grace that emanated from a gentle and sincere soul.
Rest peacefully in the earth you cherished so deeply, Mary Oliver.