When Death Comes: In Memory Of Mary Oliver


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

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?”
















“The Journey” by Mary Oliver


The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver

April is ‘National Poetry Month’ in the United States. For me every month is poetry month and every day is poetry day. I would still like to honor the month-long celebration by sharing and examining a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver that resonates with me deeply. In fact, I cannot imagine it not striking a chord with anyone who reads it. We have all at some point experienced the moment when we have to break free from what our family or community members expect of us to follow our own path and leave our own mark in the world. You have to ignore “the old tug at your ankles”, be it of a controlling relative, a needy friend or a difficult co-worker and continue with your journey to discover who you truly are. The voices of opposition can be loud and overbearing. They can do anything in their power to jeopardize your journey. They can give bad advice or drain your energy by asking you to fix their lives.

It is interesting that the speaker employs the second person ‘you’ in the poem and uses it repeatedly. It is a direct conversation with the reader, informal in tone. The use of the second person also establishes the universality of the poem. It is something everyone can relate to. It also emphasizes in an unequivocal manner that ‘you’ and ‘you’ alone are in charge of your destiny.

The personification of the wind that “pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations” is a powerful device to show what you have to contend with. Inflexible in their views, the people around you may try relentlessly to demoralize you or dissuade you from following your path through manipulation and guilt trips. But you ignore their terrible “melancholy” and do what is right for you. You realize that you do not have to conform to the constraints imposed by society.

The journey is a powerful metaphor. It is a wild night and the road is “full of fallen branches and stones”. It is not going to be a smooth journey. There will be obstacles and dangers on the path but despite what is thrown your way, you have to proceed with determination, courage and confidence to listen to your own inner voice. The poem is written in free verse with no stanza breaks. Many of the lines are short and the sentences are cut off and continued in subsequent lines. The lack of stanzas makes the reader move through the poem at a quick pace. The urgency of the task at hand is reinforced with the continuous flow in the structure. Life moves on without stopping and time waits for no one.

It is only when you leave the old voices behind that the stars reveal themselves to you and a new voice becomes audible. You slowly recognize this voice as your own and embrace it. The use of figurative language is striking and effective. The image of stars burning “through the sheets of clouds” conveys the idea that you were predestined to go on this journey. It was written in the stars that you will find your true calling. Repetitions abound towards the end of the poem to show the commitment to the journey. There is no looking back now. From a confining house you move to the wide universe outside and find your authentic voice.

This poem is a wonderful example of how poetry can be a catalyst for healing and for personal growth. Who needs therapy when poetry is free?