A Poem For Mary Oliver: A Short Reflection on the Observers Way of Being

I first read Mary Oliver in high school, but really, it felt like I knew her before that. Oliver was a watcher, a witness… To observe the observer is a strange, and wild pleasure of life.

Years later Oliver would debate against this idea I felt so fond of; that we can know others clearly, freely, that we can grab onto souls. In Oliver’s moving work, Our World (part reflection, part heartfelt goodbye) Oliver expresses the joy and sorrow of her departed spouse, Molly Malone Cook, by witnessing all the hidden pieces of her lover she would never know.


All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she
said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.

I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-
kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
for thirty years?

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

Mary Oliver, from Our World

So perhaps it is I don’t know Mary Oliver. A vice of asymmetrical insight, I suppose. And though, through her words I witnessed her, sometimes daily, on obsessive occasions I watched her through some 6 by 9 white windows, the clock dead and silent behind; though I did not see her, it was as though, without doubt, she saw me. In her words, I knew myself: an observer both knowingly and unknowingly observing a stranger observing herself through the observer. Oliver was always at attention, ready with verse and stanza that demanded attention. Meter and form. Meter and form. Good words, the right word, a very finely placed word, she gave a shape to a place unseen, a face to a human unheard of. She was, so gracefully, the best at what she did. And what she did was watch. What she did was live inside the moment of things. To this day, I still strive to eke out what she performed without waver.

No eulogy has ever been written, and will likely never be thought of, that has hit all the deftest notes of a person’s life. Mary Oliver: the goodbyes that are penned for her will be no different. Death is a special thing, in that it is the culmination of an autonomous existence. Now finished, the portrait is done, and at last the tireless work has final form, and we may see it as it is presented, not as any more, not as any less. But, a great observer does carry more, more of the world to the point that the image is a mirror, and the world may constantly return to it to look upon itself, and realize.

My question, her question, is louder than I have ever heard it:

Who was she? Who was she?

That clear, dark, lovely witness.


For Mary

She is gone
   by way of the sea,
       into the white
           she feels the way

with her mind,
   with all the danger
       parade out back—nada care.
           She gives, not a step.

Out. She’s out. Moving
   faster than a goldfinch’s 
       yellow streak; as a light-beam
           she gathers.

Leave her,
   she is carrying
       up heavenly stairwells
           poems of endarkening,

poems of birth. Listen,
   she had to go,
       the call is the call—
           we don’t say no to it.

   I manage to hold
       the soul she spoke about
           in my hands.

Otherdays, I fumble
   the petal knitted connectome
       and the trees
           are all birds

and the air her laugh,
   warbling, she says,
       I’ve dropped my fair share
           of realizations, too.

Renwick Berchild, “For Mary”

portrait of mary oliver
Portrait of beloved poet Mary Oliver, by Rachel Giese Brown.

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