Mary Oliver
(born 1935)

Mary Oliver

"The Faces of Deer"
"What I Have Learned So Far"
"Yes! No!"

Here are six Mary Oliver poems that Robert Bly read to the class in his Poetry Workshop at Stanford on May 6, 2008. Bly's assignment for the following week was to bring our favorite Mary Oliver poem to the class. In contrast to the prose poem we wrote last week on an object from nature, Bly told us to write about something we love and cherish. "Look inside yourself and see what's shining in there." Bly said, "Let your heart choose what to pay attention to and stick with it. Bring it close with details for yourself and your reader." Mary Oliver ends "Upstream" from Blue Iris (2004) with this insight: "Attention is the beginning of devotion." Attention is also the first step of mindfulness, followed by concentration, meditation, contemplation, and enlightenment. (Peter Y. Chou)

The Faces of Deer (2006)

When for too long I don't go deep enough
into the woods to see them, they begin to
enter my dreams. Yes, there they are, in the
pinewoods of my inner life. I want to live a life
full of modesty and praise. Each hoof of each
animal makes the sign of a heart as it touches
then lifts away from the ground. Unless you
believe that heaven is very near, how will you
find it? Their eyes are pools in which one
would be content, on any summer afternoon,
to swim away through the door of the world.
Then, love and its blessing. Then: heaven.


What I Have Learned So Far

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of— indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

— Mary Oliver
    New and Selected Poems, Volume 2
    Beacon Press, Boston, 1992 (Web)


Dogs (1997)

the wide field

the dark deer
went running,

five dogs

at his flanks,
at his heels,

my own two darlings
among them

lunging and buckling
with desire

as they leaped
for the throat

as they tried
and tried again

to bring him down.
At the lake

the deer

I could hear
the green wind

of his breath

but the long legs
never stopped

till he clambered
up the far shore.
The dogs
moaned and screeched

they flung themselves
on the grass

and steaming.

It took hours
but finally

in the half-drowned light
in the silence

of the summer evening
they woke

from fitful naps,
they stepped

in their old good natures
toward us

look look
into their eyes

bright as planets
under the long lashes

here is such happiness when you speak their names!
here is such unforced love!

here is such shyness such courage!
here is the shining rudimentary soul

here is hope retching, the world as it is
here is the black the red the bottomless pool.

— Mary Oliver, "Dogs"
    West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems
    Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA (1997), pp. 38-39


Yes! No! (2003)

How necessary it is to have opinions! I think the spotted trout
lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I
think serenity is not something you just find in the world,
like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like
small dark lanterns.

The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out

Yes! No! The

swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.

— Mary Oliver, "Yes! No!"
    Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays,
     Beacon Press, Boston, 2003, p. 27


May (2003)

What lay on the road was no mere handful of snake. It was the copperhead at last, golden under the street lamp. I hope to see everything in this world before I die. I knelt on the road and stared. Its head was wedge-shaped and fell back to the unexpected slimness of neck. The body itself was thick, tense, electric. Clearly this wasnąt black snake looking down from the limbs of a tree, or green snake, or the garter, whizzing over the rocks. Where these had, oh, such shyness, this one had none. When I moved a little, it turned and clamped its eyes on mine; then it jerked toward me. I jumped back and watched as it flowed on across the road and down into the dark. My heart was pounding. I stood a while, listening to the small sounds of the woods and looking at the stars. After excitement we are so restful. When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.

— Mary Oliver, "May"
    New and Selected Poems, Volume 2
    Beacon Press, Boston, 1992



I was walking by. He was sitting there.

It was full morning, so the heat was heavy on his sand-colored
head and his webbed feet. I squatted beside him, at the edge
of the path. He didn't move.

I began to talk. I talked about summer, and about time. The
pleasures of eating, the terrors of the night. About this cup
we call a life. About happiness. And how good it feels, the
heat of the sun between the shoulder blades.

He looked neither up nor down, which didn't necessarily
mean he was either afraid or asleep. I felt his energy, stored
under his tongue perhaps, and behind his bulging eyes.

I talked about how the world seems to me, five feet tall, the
blue sky all around my head. I said, I wondered how it seemed
to him, down there, intimate with the dust.

He might have been Buddha— did not move, blink, or frown,
not a tear fell from those gold-rimmed eyes as the refined
anguish of language passed over him.

— Mary Oliver, "Toad"
    New and Selected Poems, Volume 2
    Beacon Press, Boston, 1992


Web Links to Mary Oliver

Academy of American Poets: Mary Oliver
Poetry Anthology: Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver's Poems on Gratitude
Mary Oliver's Poems on Peace
Mary Oliver, EarthSaint
   (Book review by Jeanne Lohmann,
   EarthLight #28, Winter 1997-8, p. 16)

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (5-7-2008)