I wanted to write a big post claiming all the reasons Mary Oliver is my favourite poet and queer author, but my body is a wreck currently and I finished exams this week and this post is going to be thrown together quickly. I have a full review of one of Oliver’s collections of poems gathered from several periods, which could be a good introduction, but is also a bit confusing without context. Personally my favourite collection and the first I read from her was “A Thousand Mornings” back in 2017. I also truly love her essay collection “Upstream”, which along with beautiful thoughts on using nature gives a bit more insight into her thought-process and background.
In ‘Upstream’ she says: “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” And also: “You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” Truly words to live by!
First off, I was a bit into poetry before stumbling upon Mary Oliver, but I’d never read the type of nature focused poetry that she writes. I truly fell instantly in love with it. It’s a type of romanticization that doesn’t shy away from the uncontrollable force that nature is or how it affects humans. It’s spiritual at times, but she’s also a talent at using nature and beautiful phrasing to criticize society. In my head her poetry toes a lot of these balances very-well, it’s constantly questioning intentions and morale. But it’s also very simple at times, and that’s what makes it easy poetry to fall in love with even if it’s your first poetry collection, without losing substance along with that simplicity. There’s something special about life advice from someone you know have been through difficult life events and come out on the other side, especially when she looks like the perfect grandma. She’s truly life goals, and I stand by that as someone who grew up thinking I had few role models, also because the queer component was missing.
Mary Oliver went through many of the queer struggles; she was born in 1935 in suburbs of Ohio, she often went in the woods to escape a dysfunctional family and has talked briefly about experiencing sexual abuse as a child. She used writing to observe her world, but also to create one. And through it she was lucky enough to find other queer friends that would also become her family.
And after falling in love with her poetry I learned that she was an old lady! An older lesbian lady! Who had been living peacefully in nature with her female partner Molly Cook for over forty years, before she passed away. And I started crying when I heard Oliver passed away as well last year, but in the sense of someone having lived their life to completeness, even if it was a tough one.
Mary Oliver may not be very confrontative or ‘loud’ in her poetry, she’s not been extremely radicalizing or political in other means than existing as a queer person. But her story, her views and politics is definitely something you see through her poetry, it’s her medium. And I personally think it’s admirable to never lose a certain softness even as a person deals with massive trauma. But don’t mistake that as there not being a sharpness to Mary Oliver’s poetry as well.
I would suggest looking up Mary Oliver reading some on her poems on youtube and sitting down with a cup of tea or coffee, preferably staring out a window, and listen to her calm reassuring voice. You need good time for it, not in length, but in attention. Even if I also sometimes play them to relax if I can’t sleep.