Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Mary Oliver Saved My Life



I worry myself to death over things I didn’t say quite right – in a meeting, at a party, to a friend. This is a terrible idea, sort of like having that third Krispy Kreme. But sometimes you can’t help yourself.

At the unfortunate hour of 4 am, worrying, I opened Mary Oliver’s latest collection of poetry, Devotions. In this large volume, she features what she believes to be her best work from 1965 to the present.

It’s a little hard to talk about reading poetry without sounding pretentious, but truly this collection is the opposite of that. Oliver writes with quiet energy, eyes wide open, about the natural world – the local birds, the local trees, the local predators and prey. She’s writing about her backyard – and yours – and mine. The vivid, buoyant life moving in and through it all.

I felt this so strongly at 4:30 am: Mary Oliver, you’re helping me see the world clearly again. In the way of the very best writers – you’re saving my life.

Here are two poems from the collection, just a tiny sample of the enchantment on offer…


In the deep fall

     don’t you imagine the leaves think how

comfortable it will be to touch

     the earth instead of the

nothingnesss of air and the endless

      freshets of wind? And don’t you think

the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,

      warm caves, begin to think


Of the birds that will come – six, a dozen – to sleep

      inside their bodies? And don’t you hear

the goldenrod whispering goodbye,

      the everlasting being crowned with the first

tuffets of snow? The pond

      vanishes, and the white field over which

the fox runs so quickly brings out

       its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its

bellows. And at evening especially,

      the piled firewood shifts a little,

longing to be on its way.


*      *      *


Here is a story

to break your heart.

Are you willing?

This winter

the loons came to our harbor

and died, one by one,

of nothing we could see.

A friend told me

of one on the shore

that lifted its head and opened

the elegant beak and cried out

in the long, sweet savoring of its life

which, if you have heard it,

you know is a sacred thing,

and for which, if you have not heard it,

you had better hurry to where

they still sing.

And, believe me, tell no one

just where that is.

The next morning

this loon, speckled

and iridescent and with a plan

to fly home

to some hidden lake,

was dead on the shore.

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world.

*      *      *



Photo by Marianna Cook/ Penguin Press

From the Poetry Foundation:  Poet Mary Oliver is an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” wrote Maxine Kumin in the Women’s Review of Books, “particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet of occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” Kumin noted that Oliver “stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.” Oliver’s poetry has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and a Lannan Literary Award. Reviewing Dream Work (1986) for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.”


*      *      *

Image of loon copyright here.

Image of autumn forest copyright here.


  1. “…the opposite of that,” indeed. Thank you for this post.

  2. I’m not sure if it’s the rhythm of her words or her quiet delight, but something about her poetry makes you relax into the sacredness of each simple moment. Either way, she offers a pretty good antidote for worrying. Thank you!

  3. A daily dose of poetry and poets like Oliver awaken us and carry us beyond ourselves…”Look at the lilies of the field…neither do they toil or they spin…”

  4. Heart-breaking is not a bad thing. I suspected that.

  5. Thank you, Jennifer. I plan to commit to memory the last line of LEAD to share with my daughters over and over again. For some reason, I think (worry?) that beautiful message will come in handy.

  6. Incredible, the power of poetry sometimes! Oliver’s words certainly are a natural remedy for anxiousness. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thanks, Jennifer. You and Mary Oliver have given me a new and beautiful way to see the seasons of my life. I had been dwelling too much on Sonnet 73: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold . . . .

  8. Beautiful post and thank you for pointing me to more great poetry

  9. I am currently reading UPSTREAM, a collection of Mary Oliver’s essays, while paint is drying on my canvas. Her words resonate so deeply in my very visual mind, and often her words inspire a title for a finished painting.

  10. By the way, Jennifer.. you always say everything just right. Remove that worry from your list. oxo

  11. LEAD absolutely takes my breath away. The idea of heartbreaking meaning breaking your heart OPEN. Awesome.

  12. Thank you for easing many a mom’s 4 am worries with such beautiful words.

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