Mary Oliver: An Ode to the Goddess

By on Mar 9, 2019 in Pathways | 2 comments

Mary Oliver:

An Ode to the Goddess

One of my favorite places in the entire world is the isle of Iona. It is a small, initially nondescript island off the north western corner of Scotland. Some of the oldest rocks on the surface of the Earth protrude from the soil there. It is the place where Christianity came to Scotland and where Celtic Christianity once thrived. There has been a monastery and convent there for several hundred years.  I have been there twice and Spirit was very present each time. It is one of the places where the veil between the dimensions is remarkably thin.

This is also true of the poetry of Mary Oliver who passed on 1/17/19. The web site of the American Poetry Foundation said that her poetry stood on the “thin membrane that separates human from animal.” Actually, it is more correct to say that she stood where the human and nonhuman were united not separated. She saw that those boundaries were paper thin and if we open ourselves to our world and our lives in that multidimensional reality we are enriched.

Mary would walk in nature everyday noticing the world around her in exquisite detail and seeing the connections between it and us. She is the mystic who starts in the physical world, entering it fully, moving through the experience not above it. Her mystic connection arises from within the process of just noticing. It is not imposed from some higher place, or theory, or doctrine, or second-hand knowledge. Nature is not just a place for relaxation but a place of Divine encounter. One of the things I prize in her poems is that she knows that nature can be brutal, painful and filled with loss. She goes directly into all of these. The natural world is embraced as the gateway without any denial of the reality of pain or suffering.

In one of her most famous poems, “When Death Comes,” from New and Selected Poems she announces that she wants to go through that door with curiosity. At that time, she wants to be “A bride married to amazement.” Wow. This is a truly lofty statement. But earlier lines from that poem describe death as a hungry bear, measle-pox or and iceberg in the shoulder blades. There is no denial of the brutality of death. There is no easy sentimentality here. The beauty is seen without ignoring the struggle, pain and loss. She descends into it before she is transformed by it.

In her poem “Waterfall” from her volume titled “West Wind,” she implores the reader to do any thing to find life including plunging in a row boat over the falls. Again, it is a wonderful image, but she warns us there is life without love, but it is not worth much. She then uses two metaphors for life without love “a bent penny” or “a scuffed shoe” both of which are pretty weak. But then she clobbers us over the head, pummeling us with “It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied.” She challenges us, when anyone hears the call of life, in the churning of the waters that may themselves drown us, she calls us to head right for them, right over the cliff into the abyss.

Her most famous poem “Wild Geese” from “New and Selected Poems” is the only poem I ever committed to memory. It is so well known that it occasions a certain amount of boredom when recited in public. I remember the first time I read the opening lines. They shocked me into alertness.

You do not have to be good.

          You do not have to walk on your knees

          For a hundred miles through the dessert, repenting.

          You only have to let the soft animal of your body

                     Love what it loves.

These lines have inspired much of my own growth and even some of the previous blogs on this site when I encourage people to not work so hard at their growth or acknowledge that I have let go of the climb up spiritual mountain.

Mary Oliver said she could not be a mystic without nature. I think I would not be a mystic without her. Her life time was going out and noticing. Hours upon hours of being within the natural world and poems arising from within all of it. I have sorrow that she is no longer with us in physical form and great gratitude for the impact she has on my life. For eighty-three years the Divine Feminine Goddess took on the form of Mary Oliver and lived among us. She was and continues to be a true blessing.

Over the course of the next year I will be reading her work several days a week as part of my spiritual practice hoping in the process to continue to engage with that veil between the dimensions.




  1. Just beautiful! Thank you for writing and sharing.

    Anne Ciota

    March 9, 2019

  2. Thank you, Graham. This is lovely. I certainly know some of Mary Oliver’s poetry, but this has inspired me to look more closely.

    Chris Bibby

    March 9, 2019

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