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