From the time she published her first book of poetry in 1963, Mary Oliver served as a guide for her readers into the natural world, just as Robert Frost did before her. In her poems, as Joyce Carol Oates put it in a review in the New Republic, “one lives in two worlds, that of the personal and familial, and that of the impersonal and inhuman.”
On Oliver’s birthday, we celebrate the poet’s prolific career with two poems from the New Republic's archive.
I did not know that in the world there lurked
Fangs and fruits and falling trees.
Mushrooms and a writhing mud.
I did not know that in the world
Grew sinister berries and dubious roots.
I was young and quick, I was wary of none of these.
I drank black water and clattered through caves.
I was a creature of the shepherd, and this was my game.
All day long
I sipped and I nibbled: shoots from glistening trees;
Tart berries, for the sake of their shining husks; garlands
That fostered a bane under their bright petals; pools
With fevers in their dark mirrors I found, and drank from every one.
And not till I lay
Swelled and cracked on the grass did
I guess what I had eaten.
Not till I lay
With crumbling hooves kicking the grass
Did I guess what I had done.
My shepherd and my flock
Called for me down the dusky fields; but childhood
Had no potion that could lave over this fever.
And they called and they called in vain
Originally published on June 16, 1973
I'm going to Blackleaf Swamp.
I'll be back tomorrow.
I want to see
The hunting owls ride by
All glassy-eyed and gloomy.
Pools where the striped snakes cool
The burden of their backs.
Where the muskrat floats.
And the lilies shiver
Under the fingers of the moon.
If I am a woman, and tame.
Does it mean I cannot be
Part bird, part beast?
And if this is so, why does a wing in the air
Sweep against my blood
Like a small sharp oar?
And if I am alive, but must die.
Darkness and trees and water?
Along the shore
The grass is so green and fine.
It feels like the love of my mother.
Originally published on December 9, 1978