Posted by: atowhee | January 17, 2019

The voice is silent, the song is ours as long as we can sing it

Mary Oliver is dead.  Long live her thoughts and words.  No poet I have ever read gets as close to the heart of another living creature’s heart, or if a tree…so near to its heartwood.  Go out today and honor a blue heron, roll an acorn around in your palm, learn the tune of ice cracking on the river, feel frigid snow wafting against your cheek.  Thank fate and nature that Mary Oliver lived among us.  A few favorites:

“For Forty Years”

for forty years
the sheets of white paper have
passed under my hands and I have tried
    to improve their peaceful

emptiness putting down
little curls little shafts
of letters words
    little flames leaping

not one page
was less to me than fascinating
discursive full of cadence
    its pale nerves hiding

in the curves of the Qs
behind the soldierly Hs
in the webbed feet of the Ws
    forty years…

Mary OliverWest Wind, (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997).


One of our most prized books is a signed copy of “Owls and Other Fantasies.”  It was signed by Mary Oliver after we attended one of her readings decades ago in San Francisco.  Her autograph on the title page is open and generously curved.  The initial “M” could be the humps of a miniature camel.  The “little curls little shafts of letters” are legible and natural, like Oliver’s thoughts and poetry.

“Black Oaks”

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,

or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort.

Not one can manage a single sound though the blue jays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind.

But to tell the truth after a while I’m pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can’t keep me from the woods, from the tonnage

of their shoulders, and their shining green hair…

“Winter and the Nuthatch”

Once or twice and maybe again, who knows,
the timid nuthatch will come to me
if I stand still, with something good to eat in my hand.
The first time he did it
he landed smack on his belly, as though
the legs wouldn’t cooperate. The next time
he was bolder. Then he became absolutely
wild about those walnuts.

But there was a morning I came late and, guess what,
the nuthatch was flying into a stranger’s hand.
To speak plainly, I felt betrayed.
I wanted to say: Mister,
that nuthatch and I have a relationship…


“The Dipper”

 Once I saw

in a quick-falling, white-veined stream,

among the leafed islands of the wet rocks,

a small bird, and knew it

 from the pages of a book; it was

the dipper, and dipping he was,

as well as, sometimes, on a rock-peak, starting up

the clear, strong pipe of his voice; at this,

 there being no words to transcribe, I had to

bend forward, as it were,

into his frame of mind, catching

everything I could in the tone,

 cadence, sweetness, and briskness

of his affirmative report…

Nobody has written more truthfully or elegantly about a Dipper.  Oliver stands next to John Muir in my pantheon of literary dipper admirers.  Few in number, great in stature. Together they would have stood riverside of rhours, watching the to and fro, awaiting the gurgling, aqueous melody.

Click here for obituary.
Click for an homage.


  1. Hi Harry, I have read these poems on a few occasions now. Is it just that you picked the best – – – or are there many more that would please me as much? If so, please let me know which of her books I should by. I only have Selected Poems…….BTW, did you ever notice how an oak titmouse dips just like a dipper? Dip, look to the right, dip, look to the left, dip, fly to the feeder…………marie annette

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