Poem for Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver near her home in Cape Cod in 1964. Photo by Oliver’s lifelong love Molly Malone Cook. Submitted photo

The great poet Mary Oliver passed away last week, an occasion that saw the world flooded with breathtaking poems of nature and celebrations of love, life, mystery and the power of paying attention. This would-be poet was inspired to binge-read Oliver’s poetry and wisdom, and binge-view some of her readings and interviews, well into the night and early Friday morning.

I’ve thought about Oliver often over the years, mostly whenever I’ve found myself in a quiet place and at one with solitude and nature. Poems are often prayers, and Oliver was fond of the Rumi quote “There are 100 ways to kiss the ground,” which of course means that there are myriad ways to pray and to forge our connection with the universe, our creator and fellow humans. Similarly, she began her 2008 collection “Red Bird” with the Vincent Van Gogh quote, “I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.”

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life,” is Oliver’s most quoted lyric, from “The Summer Day,” an ode to carpe diem and the journey itself that I’ve always liked to think inspired Dan Wilson’s “Free Life” and Craig Wright’s “Wild Life,” two songs that likewise make the case for not wasting our gifts and time. Oliver’s     “Wild Geese” has always filled me with hope, and on the day she died, the last verse (“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely/the world offers itself to your imagination/calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting/over and over/announcing your place in the family of things”) put a silly grateful smile on my face as I watched a magnificent murder of crows rise on the wind en route to another dreary Minnesota winter sunset.

“To read Mary Oliver was to slow down,” went the headline in the Boston Globe, and more than anything, Oliver saw big miracles in little things. Her death and her passion for seemingly small moments reminded me of my last and most profound such moment, which I thought she would appreciate. Just how much I only found out the night Oliver died, when I discovered a poem that she’d obviously been waiting to gift me with at the right time.

Two days after my son’s wedding, I took my Christmas morning coffee out back by the pool of my niece and nephew-in-law’s home in Los Angeles, where we were celebrating my grandniece’s first Christmas. I was alone for the first time in a couple of days, thinking about my lad and his new bride, catching some precious California sun with my eyes closed, wondering about far-flung friends and family and love and marriage, when the sound of a small drone fluttered in front of my face.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh!I opened my eyes to see a hummingbird a few inches from my face, checking out my nose with its beak to see if I was food or sweet hummingbird juice. It fluttered there for a moment, hovered and titled its head at me in greeting as I gasped hello, then off it went on the warm Christmas-in-California breeze.

It was short and sweet, and a little research told me later that hummingbirds are a sign of love and luck and the bringers of healing and joy, with the message of the hummingbird spirit animal being the very Oliver-like, “The sweetest nectar is within!” In that magical moment (and, yes, this was beforeI’d visited Med Men, the very civilized, helpful and perfectly legal neighborhood marijuana store around the corner) I decided right then and there that the hummingbird was a messenger from you, whoever and wherever you are, letting me know that you and all is well, and a great calm washed over me. Much like how Oliver connected with all living things via her words, I felt the hummingbird’s visit to be something of a sign, and one to pause for — if only long enough to write about it here.

Turns out Oliver had her own hummingbird story. She, like dozens of other poets from Emily Dickinson to Pablo Neruda, wrote several odes to hummingbirds. In the early morning the day after she died, I discovered the following in Oliver’s “Thirst,” which lives on along with the late, great poet’s many beautiful words, reprinted here with great reverence, respect and joy.


As for life,

I’m humbled,

I’m without words

sufficient to say


how it has been hard as flint,

and soft as a spring pond,

both of these

and over and over,


and long pale afternoons besides,

and so many mysteries

beautiful as eggs in a nest,

still unhatched


though warm and watched over

by something I have never seen —

a tree angel, perhaps,

or a ghost of holiness.


Every day I walk out into the world

to be dazzled, then to be reflective.


It suffices, it is all comfort —


along with human love,


dog love, water love, little-serpent love,

sunburst love, or love for that smallest of birds

flying among the scarlet flowers.

There is hardly time to think about


stopping, and lying down at last

to the long afterlife, to the tenderness

yet to come, when

time will brim over the singular pond, and become forever,


and we will pretend to melt away into the leaves.

As for death,

I can’t wait to be the hummingbird,

can you?



Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]