Poetry Friday: In Blackwater Woods  by Mary Oliver

Today’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect 

blackwater pond

It’s hard to believe, because hardly a day has since passed when I have not reached for some work of hers, but I discovered Mary Oliver by chance as I was rifling through the “Used and slightly damaged” book bin at the Strand Bookstore.  A copy of “American Primitive” with just its front cover page missing was among other treasures, and although I didn’t know Oliver, I did know and love Stanley Kunitz’s poetry, and this is what he had to say on the back cover blurb:

“Mary Oliver’s poetry is fine and deep; it reads like a blessing.  Her special gift is to connect us with our sources in the natural world, its beauties and terrors and mysteries and consolations.  American Primitive enchants me with the purity of its lyric voice, the knowing freshness of its perceptions, and the singular glow of a spiritual life brightening the pages.”

Memory tells me that the book fell open to this poem, but I think this is the way I have chosen to remember it:

In Blackwater Woods  by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
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.
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.


I’ve bought every one of Oliver’s books since then, and have never failed to have been moved by  her poems and essays.  I tried to remember her “Instructions For Life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” every time I went for a walk or lost my way in the banality of daily life.  Many of her poems became life anthems, words I could call up for consolation and motivation in equal measure.  They are a blessing.

8 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: In Blackwater Woods  by Mary Oliver

  1. Thanks for this lovely, heartfelt post, Tara. I think it was fate that you stumbled upon that copy of American Primitive. “In Blackwater Woods” is stunning. I’m in awe how something that reads so simply can be so profound.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tara, I grieve with you. This beautiful poet brightened our world and we will miss her. I didn’t discover Mary Oliver until Poetry Friday…friends like you introduced me to her. I like how Margaret Simon says that all of us are holding a wake…online. Sort of like those wild geese heading home. Thank you for this post. I look forward to next Friday when you host. Do you have a theme idea? Let us know.


  3. Tara, thank you for adding to the celebration of Mary Oliver. Do you know, I don’t own a single one of her books? I know her mainly because she is a favorite of Unitarian Universalists, our unofficial poet laureate. Think of the delight that awaits me…

    and thanks for your comment for the Diamond Miners!


  4. Beautiful post, Tara. I loved reading everyone’s tributes to Mary Oliver this week. Her poetry was a gift that everyone seemed to appreciate and treasure.


  5. Her words are and remain a blessing for us all. Thank you for sharing your journey to discover Mary Oliver and her poetry.


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