Archived Reading Room

A poet offers thoughts on life and death

Mary Oliver. Donated photo Mary Oliver. Donated photo

When someone dies, we look for words to assuage our grief and the grief of others. We deliver eulogies, we offer prayers, we console those left behind, we sing hymns or other songs beloved by the deceased, we read from various books — the Bible, poems, bits and pieces of prose — to send the departed one into the earth. Often, too, we gather after the funeral for food and drink, and recollect our dead by sharing memories of their deeds and words while they still lived.

The words of certain writers can serve as the epitaphs on their graves and on their lives. In the case of Shakespeare, this is literally true. He continues to lie in his church in Stratford-On-Avon rather than in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abby in part because of the words he wrote and had graven on his tomb: “Good friend for Jesus sake forebeare, To dig the dust enclosed here./Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.” 

Writers leave us their lines of poetry and their stories, and those are the tokens by which we remember them.

On Jan. 17, 2019, American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver died at age 83 at her home in Florida. Variously described as America’s best-selling poet, a bard of the natural world, and a near recluse, Oliver was a prolific poet who gathered her ideas and subjects for her work on her long daily walks. Some criticized her for what they perceived to be her romanticism, others for her failure to be a “balladeer of contemporary lesbian life.” (Photographer Molly Malone Cook was Oliver’s partner for over 40 years).

Over the years, I would now and again pick up a volume of Oliver’s poetry, and was always drawn, like so many others, into her verse. Rather than summing up her achievements with my own duller words, it seems more fitting to give Ms. Oliver over to eternity simply by remembering a couple of her poems:


Related Items

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.


When Death Comes

When death comes

like the hungry bear in autumn;

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

when death comes

like the measle-pox

when death comes

like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

and I look upon time as no more than an idea,

and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something

precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


Thank you, Mary Oliver, for giving us “something particular and real.” R.I.P. 

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.