The 18th of April is Poem in Your Pocket Day, part of the month-long celebration of National Poetry Month in the United States. The poem I chose to carry in my pocket yesterday was written by Pulitzer Prize -winning poet, Mary Oliver who left our earthly abode two months ago. Her soulful rapport with nature and meditations on the human condition have touched and transformed many lives. To mourn her demise or celebrate her life as the case may be, I fittingly selected a poem on death that teaches us to live. For, after all, aren’t life and death two sides of the same coin?
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Mary Oliver imparts her wisdom in a gentle way in her poems. This poem is a meditation on mortality or immortality depending on your perspective; it is a mantra on how to live our lives. The speaker resorts to similes and personification to imagine the arrival of death which can take several forms. It can appear as a ravenous bear, as a merciless man with a coin purse, as a dreadful disease or as a huge and chilling mass of ice. Even if death charges at her ruthlessly, she wants to welcome it with curiosity. The “cottage of darkness” is an arresting metaphor as a cottage conjures up an image of a cozy, comfortable and warm place as opposed to death which is cold and frightening. It is interesting that she doesn’t capitalize death. It is just another ordinary and inevitable event in our lives.
The poem is written in free verse without a set rhyme or meter. The twelve stanzas of varying length convey a continuous flow of thoughts. You almost feel like she is having a conversation with you. The liberal use of the comma instead of a period enables us to read the poem without pausing. The use of poetic devices like the ‘enjambment’ or technique of continuing one thought beyond the end of a line to the subsequent line ( lines 11-12 ) and the ‘anaphora’ when a line is repeated at the beginning of a number of lines (“when death comes”) gives the poem an incantatory tone like a prayer chant.
The speaker goes on to question conventional notions of time as linear and finite and considers “eternity as another possibility.” Each life is individual and unique like a flower. Yet all existence is interlinked and the speaker wishes to live with awareness and curiosity and to also live in close communion with nature and the universe. The individual human is a “lion of courage” fearlessly confronting the mysteries of life and the individual human experience is music which moves collectively towards silence or death. The juxtaposition of music and silence is akin to that of life and death.
The speaker wishes to make use of the gift of life she has been offered by embracing the experience fully. She doesn’t choose one or the other but wishes to be married to life both as a bride and a groom- to avail of all the experiences life has to offer. She doesn’t want to just visit the world but inhabit it and immerse in it fully with amazement and wonder. Bridal symbolism to convey the relation between earthly and spiritual love is a recurrent motif in many mystical traditions of the world including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Sufism where the soul is the bride yearning for union with her divine beloved, the Universe. Mary Oliver was perhaps influenced by these spiritual traditions as in a radio interview she had revealed that she read Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet every single day.
Mary Oliver enjoyed going on long walks to seek solace in nature and to be one with the birds, flowers, forests and rivers- to contemplate tiny miracles whether it was a grasshopper moving her jaws back and forth, poppies swaying in the wind or mushrooms sprouting through the ground. In fact, many of her poems are used in workshops on mindfulness. I channel her sometimes when I go on nature walks, when I slow down to gaze at a dewdrop on a flower, or delight in the antics of a determined squirrel or observe a jewel of a dragonfly flapping its gossamer wings on a branch. I, too, hope that at the end of my life I can say that I was a bride married to amazement and that I didn’t end up simply having visited this world. I leave you, friends, to ponder this question that Mary Oliver asked us in one of her most famous poems:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”