I happened to be reading Mary Oliver’s “Dog Songs” book of poems over the course of several evenings when I heard the news of her death last week. What a momentous passing for the poetry world! The thought that she will never write another word for the world to read is depressing. I’ve been in a funk for a few days.
One of my friends said that when he heard the news, it hit him like that scene in “Star Wars” when Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan is destroyed by the Death Star; a giant scream passes through the galaxy, heard only by those who are strong in the Force. In the case of Mary Oliver, I imagine many poets emitted silent screams when they heard the news.
I’ve long been a fan of her work. I even was able to see her read in person in the hinterlands that are Duluth way back in 1987. Her autograph is on my copy of “American Primitive” as proof!
I appreciate how Mary made poetry accessible. Her consistent weaving of themes from the natural world and the sensual world spoke to me unlike the work of any other poet. Thank you thank you Mary Oliver for having the courage to put your words to paper and the perseverance to publish them!
I’d like to share with you some of my favorite poems from “Dog Songs,” which, as if you couldn’t guess, are poems about her dogs.
These lines are from one entitled “Her Grave,” and they echo thoughts I have almost every time I walk my dog:
A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
that you know
In that short phrase, Mary explains the different worlds that dogs and humans inhabit, yet how closely they are connected.
Another favorite is, “The Poetry Teacher.” This poem describes how the university gave Mary a “new, elegant” classroom to teach in – one where her dogs were not allowed. She would not agree to that and instead moved into an old classroom in an old building. She kept the door propped open and eventually her dog would arrive with his friends . . .
all of them thirsty and happy.
They drank, they flung themselves down
among the students. The students loved
it. They all wrote thirsty, happy poems.
Then there’s “The Wicked Smile,” about a dog who seems famished for breakfast and “talks” Mary into feeding it, only to “confess” afterward that someone else fed him breakfast already.
While her dog poems are not quite as strong as her people-oriented poems, they are certainly worth reading. You won’t look at dogs in quite the same way afterward.
May you all write thirsty, happy poems!