top of page

Everything on the Table: 5 Poems

Right after Mary Oliver died, I spent time poring over her words, as you may have, as well. And something about that poignancy of reading her in the immediate wake of her last breath created in me a veritable flood of words. For 4 or 5 days I was in a soup of language, marinating in the simplicity of sounds, and the haphazard crashing together of phonemes and morphemes that just seemed to fit together in some mystical order.

The more complex component, of actually sorting out what the meanings were underneath the words, vexed me less than usual. I had this sense (note that I speak in past tense - it's slipping out of my hands) that it didn't matter a fig if I knew what I was talking about, because the words came barreling down the track like a freight train.

I was simply in a flow of creating, and I lost myself in it, and it was good.

I did not exactly feel grief that she had died, nor was I in some swoon of gratitude for the gifts that she gave to the world. I was just more intensely aware of how magnificent a job she did at handling the world with grace and grit, the tenderest kind of grit and the most honest expression of grace. I became more fiercely aware of how important it is to cleave off the parts of life that are not alive anymore, and how the life force gets strangled when we hold too tightly to anything.

Someone said once, "Your no gives you your yes," and I have a lot of gratitude for whoever that was. Mary seemed to say no easily, in so many ways. She learned not to add things that were not necessary, to not mess with baubles and trinkets or too much sweetener. And that gave her space, so much space, and nature abhors a vacuum.

One of the things I heard Mary Oliver say, thanks to Krista Tippett's On Being, is that a poem is nothing if it isn't given to the world. That's not exactly how she said it, but the message was clear - a poem is an exchange. It cannot live inside a cage of self-scrutiny, and the nutrients inside it need to be taken apart by someone else's digestive system, if there is to be any value to it. So I've sprung some poems into the world and here they are, roaming about. Hopefully they will be seeds that will sprout into something nourishing for someone, somewhere.

For any of us who had our lives saved by her gentle handling of the world, in words and actions, we now get the opportunity to simply save ourselves. Maybe that's a prayer for you, or a finally honest howl of grief, a nakedness, or the simple remembering to pay attention. Whatever it is, don't delay. Put everything, even the broken bones, on the table. Every ship is sailing soon.


Mary Oliver

It has been 5 days since she slipped into the watery space beyond time,

beyond the fractiousness of being in a body, with a name, a path, and a pen.

She did it better than most--

she truly did save her own life, the only one available for saving.

The way she held this world in her hands

managed to be a rejoicing of all of this, and the beyond, at once.

Some people come by their joy honestly, through fierce determination.

Her time here was not without tumult.

Her guts churned like everyone else's,

and the hallowed halls of her memories reeled with sorrows.

Her childhood, when she defined it charitably,

was insufficient,

and those whom she loved most, earliest on,

gave her boxes of rage

to unpack

for days upon days, years upon years.

But the fields of the world, and all places beyond walls

unfolded for her, as she stood there on her stoop.

The world offered itself

to her open hands,

and her endless imagination.

The creatures came nearer to her than to most of us

flying things let her see their wildness

and she could watch the smallest gestures of the beasts and know things


The sky seemed to slough off its covers for her,

and rivers carried her as far as she would like to go.

It's as if the world could feel that it had a home in her,

that she would never not want it, nor want too much

but that it was welcome,

that all of its beauty

was her hearth.


For the Wanting

There are those

Who appear so bedecked with the good things of life

That from a distance you might not notice, but

who, in their quiet anguish,

hold themselves and their lives

in clenched fists,

with rows of lawyers behind them, and turrets built of


and hierarchies.

They content themselves

collecting baubles and trinkets

and decorating themselves with spices, pigments and jewels

as if the grave would fancy them more palatable that way.

And then there are those

who dare to be carried on wind,

an empty space that life can move freely through


who sprinkle themselves, everything that they are,

as generously as they can,

upon the cliffs of the world,

to be feasted upon by whatever flying things happen along,

or whatever hooved things

have the tenacity to climb there.

Blissful and oblivious,

they are dying every day,

and are lighter for it,

drinking in the sunshine and basking in the cherished gusts of wind,

they have

(without knowing they have it)

that sense of being used up,

taken over by the immense kaleidoscope of

the world’s senses,

They dine majestically,

drinking everything at the banquet,

but seem equally happy to simply eat the air around them.

They are the balance that the rest of us hang upon,

and the guides we worshippers flock to

For we feel them

bursting our chests open,

delighted, and


They float past in grace

motes of dust in our imaginations.

They are here

even as they dance across galaxies

They are light

even in the face of

the world’s clawing clutch

this refusal to be sated

this tragic display of wanting,

The only thing we all must forgive.


The Crashing

Inside the fecundity of the beautiful everythingness

(The infinite inter-tangle of roots, limbs)

There will still be moments

Of land grabs

and tragic misunderstandings,

Ships smashing into each other at high noon,

Not at all by accident.

It’s too much to bear, some nights,

and the hum of the machine of figuring

overwhelms the silence

The perennial mistake is too much scaffolding;

too much wanting of that which can’t be had,

and too much of never enough

and an edifice of self built of mirrors that should have linked us together

into Indra's net

Inside the emptiness of the mirror

The place we can sit together for hours in the quietude,

in the blessed slowing down of silence,

There will still be jabs of unknowing

Twitching nerve fibers

as the beast is not yet transformed

Watch; there is a seething

it is drunk upon itself

and oblivious of the quiet hands

of the day

knitting the schedules together

tending the children

Can we be alongside this muddled face of a world,

that we spin into being in our own clumsy fingers?

Can we sit with just this,

the elusive glimpse of the mystery,

this subtle taste we cannot quite remember,

even while the collisions still complicate places inside us?

This question,

if I can remember to ask it,

brings back the greenery,

and the golden light softens your features,

for there will never be a hardening when the right questions come.

Ask, again and again, ask.

And the rich rotting earth turns beautiful again,

the water keeps running for the sea,

and the storm beating inside every chest

makes it all unreal and real,

and undoubtedly,

worth it.

Martin Pfister Photography

Martin Pfister



I know you think

I am so thin-skinned and scattered,

it's like living with a patch of leaves,

quiet and still,

and then suddenly aloft in the wind.

I try to make myself more cogent,

more held together somehow,

but the world finds me off guard,

over and over again.

Trust me that I know what you are surely wishing you could tell me;

these bottle glasses,

that have taught me to see so clearly that which is right in front of me,

have me utterly missing the point of everything.

I know that I tell you

all those Lord of the Flies years you have clocked

have you agitated and clumsy and gigantic.

You knock everyone over, just entering the room.

But whatever you are doing with yourself,


(whatever that really means)

and good luck,

and please keep blooming into more and more of yourself

with your networks of porous little sporelings,

ever embracing even the poisons with your golden glow

And please don’t throw up your hands;

we are with you.

It's just


this world of deadlines and urgencies and exigencies


too tight, too fast, too hot

for most of us.

Many of us, you see, wake up sometimes

with a clamp around our heads,

and it takes so much to climb out towards the horizon.

The sky is vast and wide,

but it never really beckons.

It occurs to me

one must want it,

with everything we’ve got,

and remember every instant how much hangs in the balance.

If you await an invitation,

the world of hardening men, who are too proud,

and bitter women, too shy —

and the disingenuousness of the marketplace

(everyone hungry for spoils of war)

will hook into your guts

so deftly,

and you will be convinced of the biggest lie,

that you must be constantly afraid.

How do you do it?

How do you melt away into

the places where lies cannot be told,

where even tragedy cannot undo you,

and you climb out of the rubble unscathed,

your head held high,

and your raiment, only song?

I see you not knowing,

and yet your eyes are soft,

with so many thank you’s,

wisps of color

and the offerings,

endless offerings!

They are innocent, like the ones

children make;

wanting nothing.

They are pinecones,

vaguely heart shaped rocks,

and pictures of families

shaped of sticks and devotion.


Upheaval, yours and mine

I walked into a terrible covering over of everything—

Drifts of invisible poison, aloft on dust motes, floating through the demolished rooms.

I thought we’d be able to get pretty new cupboards without so much fuss,


the world over is fraught with struggle,

and I know it,

and everything has its price.

So we send our things to the dump

in truckloads,

and get out.

We sleep anywhere we can find,

any empty bed.

Queen Amy, Queen Anne, Queen Heidi, y la Reina Maxima, Herminia.

all those casual friends

who opened their homes to us

became my royal highnesses.

Que Dios te lo paga

I bow forever to your flowered feet.

Still, I was shaken,

unable to stand there naked on the shore

while the ship pulled out

I was undone by the entropy

could not shake the loss.

The boys seemed not to notice, except they

became incomprehensibly wild again,

more scrappy and hungry, more flailing fists and mock power.

They succumbed to the sting of unknowing only at night,

the seam where their clinging to me unmasks them.

I had not been on the road for so long, and never as a mother.

I found myself ill-equipped for the journey.

I was disappointed

at my disappearing into thought,

and shortness of breath and fuse.

“Pues no está acostumbrada a batallar,” Hermi quipped, laying it all out.

Meanwhile, I build a house around me;

a mandala I construct in my mind,

and the arms I wrap around my children at night.

In the wee hours, desperate and unable to sleep,

I turn to the east, as if to beckon the light.

I enter the palace of holding each encumbrance

and the discipline of saying no and yes.

Two things happen at once:

the precariousness of the whole world

is emptying out into my understanding,

more naked and real than headlines can make it.

And all the while,

the tenderness grows up in infinite shoots around me.

I float in an ocean of the five lights,

a kaleidoscope of tools spools forth out of my hands,

and I feel the great whale lungs of the world

breathing us all.

When the morning comes,

I hang up the frock of my own troubles,

straighten up the spine,

and wait for the phone to ring.

You come with your pain,

the ripped pieces of dreams

in your hands,

and I ask you the same question I’ve asked myself:

Where do you take yourself in your mind

while all the paths infinitely fracture and diverge?

I know that you are watching the world with me

the Tower of Babel revisited

This canned descent into madness

but that it is your own family’s fall

that has left you rocking yourself to sleep.

We both know that the words that rattle in your head

are your greatest foe to face down.

You cannot quite hear yourself digging the deepest hole,

so I will underline it for you:

when you yourself tell yourself

that you cannot handle this

this fall,

(this painful schism from grace to bottom)

that one sentence is a screaming bullet

that has been passed down to you like a trunk of sirens,

through a long lineage,

the ultimate family fire.

Hold fast though, to the beyond that is in you

(that is you)

that remembrance is more you than that voice -

that place you can only touch in silence, or in the moments when you are playing with sand.

You are spinning all of this out of pure space, and the fibers that float around your fingers

are yours to lace together.

There is no remediation company, no agency outside your own,

to draw a line for you,

to build a fort for you to play in.

So the question is,

can you actually be with this? In the only right now sense of it?

Again and yet again,

only now.

Somehow, do you trace a labyrinth on the floor,

inside the boggling of the house of mirrors, and make for yourself a path to walk?

Featured Posts
Recent Posts