After Mary Oliver

“My work is loving the world.”

So begins the poem Messenger, by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who died this week at the age of 83. Oliver delivered intimate observations of nature and deepened our understanding of life’s essence in few, choice words.

“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums…”

And though there were no hummingbirds or sunflowers to be found here yesterday, I nevertheless felt compelled to walk down the starkly cold winter road in honor of Mary Oliver and to satisfy my own need to find what beauty might remain along the roadside.

“Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be

Standing still in 21-degree weather means mostly frozen fingers. Still, there is no substitute for being present; for being astonished by the cold; by wingbeats of geese overhead; by curled leaves of grasses waving in the wind.

44 Comments on “After Mary Oliver

  1. Beautiful. On the day she died, I sketched a Wisteria pod.. then I forgot it on my desk. Yesterday as I was working, it suddenly snapped open, startling me – I had to smile.

  2. Love her poetry and your roadside moment. So nice to think of inspiring so many people with poetry and art. Thanks for posting.
    p.s. will have to wait a few days since it is minus 3 degrees here in MI today!

  3. Your beautiful art and words remind us all that Mary Oliver left for us.
    Thank you.

  4. Jean, I have spent my afternoon reading Mary’s poetry. Asa high school teacher, I always taught her especially WILD GEESE. Your entry and art have moved me to tears. Thank you. I am Lucy Ross’s friend and so delighted in getting to know you at her house. You are a blessing to us, Betsy GARRARD

    • Betsy- So glad you reached out! Mary Oliver touched many lives– I think she seemed to articulate what we felt, but could not find words for; or gave us understanding of things we cannot understand. How wonderful that her words will keep on giving. I’m glad to know you introduced her to your students. Be well, Jean

  5. Thank you for doing a tribute to Mary Oliver. I like the reference to geese, recalling one of her most cherished poems, the crisp curves of those dried grasses, and the “damn cold” which I’m sure she would like. You kept your mind on your work while paying tribute. 🙂

  6. Lovely sentiment and lovely drawing. I didn’t know about Mary Oliver, but now I will surely look for her poems.
    Did you actually draw & paint while outside? Or maybe just draw & paint inside? Either way, it’s inspiring, as always.

    • Definitely look her up! I drew outside and painted inside. I thought I’d last longer, but I only made it about 30 minutes. Quick sketching pays off! Today, it’s even colder (and a foot of snow covered everything I sketched yesterday). I’m in!

  7. Post Script: I just read “How I Go to the Woods”. Thank you for leading me to Mary Oliver.

  8. Thank you for your poetry of line and colour and for the introduction to the beautiful words .

  9. What a beautiful tribute to this poet. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of Oliver, but am so glad to read your post so I can learn more about her work.

  10. Mary Oliver

    What a day to pass away
    during this thundering blizzard storm.
    Winds blowing thick snow horizontally,
    Snow hurried and determined to reach everything and everyone,
    To load up around every tree bush rock to make beautiful cornice sculptures.

    The wood stove cranking
    The electricity out
    Soup on the gas burner
    As heavy snow glop wet drop slops
    And white clouds touch white mountains
    White fog breath hovers over homes, over hope.

    This is a day we will remember
    This is a poet we will always love,
    Alive forever in words on winter white pages
    And alive in birdsong (same thing).

    Annie Barrett
    Jan. 17, 2019

  11. Hi Jean—

    You are probably the only one, now that Mary Oliver is gone, to find beauty in roadside grasses in freezing temperatures! And you did make a lovely painting. You are quite amazing!

    xx, Nancy


    • I typically do not use a fountain pen in my journal because I don’t want the fuss. I use a Micron black pen (size 02) for drawing and text and build up the thicker strokes of the letters. On this page, I did the word “Roadside” in watercolor with a size 1 brush. This was tricky, and I wasn’t entirely happy with the result. It’s much harder to get a consistent stroke weight with a brush. I have also used a dip pen and loaded it with watercolor paint. Had I thought of that, I probably would have done that here, as you get more control. So, as you can see, there are lots of options; experiment to find the ones that work best for you!

      • Well, your text always looks so beautiful. And, you are so good at combining it with your artwork. That is always my issue. Mine always looks very separate. Like an afterthought. How do you always blend it in so well?

      • Gwen- I think of text as a graphic element. Once the drawing/painting parts of the page are complete, I look at the remaining spaces and consider what I want to say and how best to integrate it. That may be just a single word or it may be a poem or quote, etc. I also think about the style of the text in relation to the drawing. There’s no one right way to do it, but adding text is not random. It is a thoughtful addition to finish the page and further express what I’m trying to convey. Hope that helps!

  12. Reblogged this on Elizabeth River Bird Blog and commented:
    We’ll call this an interim blog post. One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, just passed away, and artist and naturalist–and fellow blogger–Jean Mackay, has written this wonderful tribute to her.

    I really can’t add much, except to say that Ms. Oliver often wrote about birds. And, as someone else has pointed out, she believed that there was a very “thin membrane” separating us from birds and other animals. This reminds me of words that I shared with you earlier in my post, “Birds Provide a Bridge”: “Birds provide a bridge into the mysteries of a world the animal in us fondly remembers.”

    Let me share with you, in closing, one of Mary Oliver’s bird poems. I chose this especially, and you’ll soon see why.

    Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard

    His beak could open a bottle,
    and his eyes – when he lifts their soft lids –
    go on reading something
    just beyond your shoulder –
    Blake, maybe,
    or the Book of Revelation.

    Never mind that he eats only
    the black-smocked crickets,
    and the dragonflies if they happen
    to be out late over the ponds, and of course
    the occasional festal mouse.
    Never mind that he is only a memo
    from the offices of fear –

    it’s not size but surge that tells us
    when we’re in touch with something real,
    and when I hear him in the orchard
    down the little aluminum
    ladder of his scream –
    when I see his wings open, like two black ferns,

    a flurry of palpitations
    as cold as sleet
    rackets across the marshlands
    of my heart
    like a wild spring day.

    Somewhere in the universe,
    in the gallery of important things,
    the babyish owl, ruffled and rakish,
    sits on its pedestal.
    Dear, dark dapple of plush!
    A message, reads the label,
    from that mysterious conglomerate:
    Oblivion and Co.
    The hooked head stares
    from its house of dark, feathery lace.
    It could be a valentine.

    Happy Valentine’s Day, and thank you, as always, for reading.

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