Mary Oliver: American Primitive

Lao Tzu, Rumi, David, Emerson, Wordsworth, Gibran, and Mary Oliver have taught me, over the years, that I never finish reading a book of wisdom poetry.

When I read the last psalm, song, or poem, I simply put the book down for a while–sometimes for a few years–until one day whim, genius, or spiritual thirst inspires me to pick it up again, to read it anew, informed by the freshness of raw experience and the depth of reflective living.

This winter and spring I have been reading Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, the collection that earned her the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. I have read one or two poems per day, often ruminating the same poems two or three days in a row, so as to let their verses percolate into the depths of my body-minded being.

The poems in American Primitive express an astonishing mix of sensual perception and vital wisdom. Oliver is masterful in inviting the reader into alert bodily experience of Nature’s wonders that leads into spiritual insight. The initial and final verses of “The Plum Trees” are an example. The poem begins:

Such richness flowing

through the branches of summer and into

the body, carried inward on the five


It continues to celebrate the joys of “sensual inundation” brought about by the five river-senses before closing:


the only way to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

into the body first, like small

wild plums.

And thus, Oliver tells us, spiritual happiness begins with the delightful taste of wild fruit, deliberately savored.

Wild fruit for wild birds

Her poem reminded me of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Wild Apples,” which I read in one of my first philosophy courses, taught by Ol’Moose. Wild apples, hardy and tart, served as a metaphor for the robust vitality of persons who preserved their inner wildness. I have always admired the essay’s tone, full of joy and zest, especially since Thoreau wrote it when he was already sick with tuberculosis and traveled to Minnesota to try to restore his health. When I read the essay, I couldn’t tell that he was sick. I rather imagined him strong and energized for his walks–such was the state of his wild spirit.

I perceived that kind of disposition in Oliver’s poetic exploration of what is primal to spirit in relation to what is primitive in Nature. I am grateful for her ability to distill the wildness of experience into heart-nourishing wisdom.

The opening verses of “In Blackwater Woods” invite us to look through her eyes:

Look, the trees

are turning

their own bodies

into pillars

of light,

are giving off the rich

fragrance of cinnamon

and fullfilment…

She then leads us from observation into reflection:

Every year


I have ever learned

in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side

is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

Upon reading these verses, we can pause and ponder the image. The fire that burns what we have cultivated; the black river that floods what we have built–they leave us face to face with loss that ineffably, mysteriously turns into salvation, into renewal, into rebirth.

And in the closing verses, Oliver expresses a depth of insight that strikes us by its simplicity–poetic wisdom worthy of the book of Ecclesiastes or the Tao Teh Ching:

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

Letting go of what one has loved as dearly as one’s own life, of what one has cherished in the innermost profundity of the heart: this is hardest and most vital. I have learned it, again, this winter and spring. Oliver sealed the meaning of experienced loss with her words.

The time has come for me to let American Primitive go. For a while or for life? I have no way of knowing. But its verses have left their imprint in me.

I am now turning to Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, but Oliver’s voice, like Rumi’s or Thoreau’s, Lao Tzu’s or Gibran’s, echoes in everything I read, like pure raindrops in the lake of wisdom.

Saugatuck Reservoir, Fairfield County, Connecticut, a place where I have cherished the wisdom of beloved friends

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