Category Archives: Mary Oliver

‘The Journey’ by Mary Oliver

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
recognized 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.

Here is another poem by Mary Oliver that I love. As always, her language is fresh and deft, and simple in the way that wisdom is always simple. There is almost something Hemingway-esque about its simplicity.

I think that this poem is a very beautiful description of what it is like to discover one’s vocation. A vocation is something you “[have] to do”, something you will gravitate toward despite the “bad advice” and the “old tug” of those around you pulling you back or in other directions.

And there is always a moment where you must “[leave] their voices behind”, and when you do, the “stars [begin] to burn”. Suddenly, you can hear your own voice and it “[keeps] you company”. I love the description of the burning stars here; the world is brighter, richer, and more beautiful when you are doing the thing you were born to do. The burning stars deliver a sense of beauty, but they also make me think of the idea of destiny or fate — as though the stars are burning with pleasure that their decree is being carried out.

A vocation could be anything: it could be being a writer, a painter, a mother, a priest, a good friend… Whatever it is, it is the “only thing you could do” and yours is the “only life you could save”. I firmly believe that everybody on this earth has a vocation — a thing that they were born to do — the “only thing” they could do. But it always takes courage to do it.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
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.

I started reading and loving Mary Oliver’s poems just after I left school, when a friend gave me this to read. Since then I have enjoyed the collections ‘Dream Work’ (from which this poem is taken) and ‘House of Light’. I think what really attracts me about Oliver’s work is its startling freshness. I love her descriptions of nature because they are real and not idealised: she allows nature its contrasts of light and dark, rough and smooth, life and death, and the world she depicts is all the more beautiful for it. There is something gloriously simple and physical about her images. It’s like you come back from her poems with your face flushed from the cold mountain air, and earth under your fingernails. I love this poem for its simple wisdom.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh