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.