Mary Oliver Poems from 1979 to 1986

I like a surprising number of Mary Oliver’s poems in these sections, but, as usual, the ones I particularly like are the ones that I identify with the most. In fact, “The Fish” made me remember some particularly vivid childhood memories that I’d manage to forget:


The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.

Now, the first fish I ever caught were salmon, large salmon at that, and I still remember that I couldn’t bring myself to hit the beautiful fish on the head with the small “bat” that my father brought for precisely that purpose. And I still remember feeling sorry for the fish flailing at the bottom of the boat desperately trying to get back in the water. Half tempted to throw it back, I was always relieved when my father would finally dispatch the salmon with a single blow.

I was particularly proud when mom announced we were eating Loren’s salmon, proud that at six or seven I could contribute to the family. Salmon were an essential part of our diet, and, living in the Northwest, I findi it difficult not to identify with the great salmon runs.

And, in a very real sense, the last three lines “Out of pain,/ and pain, and more pain/ we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished/ by the mystery” capture some of the mystery that we in the Northwest identify with the great salmon runs where the salmon complete the mystical cycle of life and death, literally sacrificing themselves to propagate the next generation, and we, mere humans, can only stand in awe.

I suspect that our recent snowstorm, the first in several years here in the Pacific Northwest flatlands, has something to do with my liking of “First Snow:”


The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles; nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain-not a single
answer has been found-
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

Though there is certainly something about the immediacy of this poem that appeals to me, part of the appeal also comes from recognizing the opposite truth, that such immediacy cannot truly answer the ultimate questions that haunt us. At best, it merely holds them in abeyance, as temporary as the snow that coats the landscape.