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When Death Comes -- Mary Oliver

Guest poem sent in by Katherine E. Hudson
(Poem #1376) 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.
-- Mary Oliver
I've been somewhat surprised so few of Mary Oliver's poems have been
included in the Minstrels' archive, as I have found her a revelation and a
delight among contemporary poets.  I suppose that's because she addresses
matters that engage my interest and does so with language that is both
ordinary and imaginative.

She has a unique ability to convey the wonder and awe the natural world and
its denizens can evoke, usually using rather simple language to do it,
though this poem doesn't really illustrate that ability.  Nonetheless, "the
bride married to amazement" and "the bridegroom, taking the world into [his]
arms," firmly link this poem to others in which Oliver more obviously
celebrates the natural world.

The catalog of images at the beginning of this poem reminds me of the
various forms of death identified by Gerard Manley Hopkins at the beginning
of "Part the Second" of The Wreck of the Deutschland:  "'Some find me a
sword; some/The flange and the rail; flame,/Fang, or flood,' goes Death on a
drum/And storms bugle his fame."  But Hopkins' list is rather flatly
concrete, while Oliver's imagery is forceful and evocative, suggesting the
suddenness with which death may come (the snapping shut of the purse), its
implacability (the hungry bear), the pain and disgust (the measle-pox), and
fear (the iceberg between the shoulders--oooh, I like that one!) that may
accompany it.   [By the way, don't anybody think I'm dissing Hopkins, who is
one of my favorite poets; and The Deutschland is a powerful poem, I think--a
pity it's probably too long for the Minstrels' archive.]

But my fondness for Oliver's poetry isn't based in analysis--she moves me,
consistently and deeply.  And my desire for that kind of experience is why I
signed up for the Minstrels' list.  Only a few poems I've seen so far have
given me the charge only good poetry can (The Icelandic Language was
one)--but that's not a problem: how many highs a week can a person stand,
anyway?  And I'm seeing poems I would otherwise never encounter.  I thank
you very much indeed for your service and thank my fellow list-members for
their contributions and insights.

Katherine Hudson

39 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anonymous said...

Sister K,

This is simply oone of my favorite poems. Mary is a "bride married to amazement" indeed, in fact of flesh. I had the same thougt, the kinship with Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose imagery and seeing and language I would not call "flat." But let us not bicker over small thins, but 'inscape' into both their visionary dance of the concrete and its radiant light. Indeed, there "lives the dearest freshness/deep down things."
Gary O'Guinn
Bethlehem, PA

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