I wasn’t aware that so many of Mary Oliver’s poems were about death. But listening to the recently released Pushkin audiobook Wild and Precious: A Celebration of Mary Oliver, a nearly five-hour reflection on her life and works, I quickly realized that her painstakingly simple, evocative lines were often metaphors for much darker themes.
If you buy this book thinking of it as a condensed college-level course, you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s much more than that. The recordings feature an assembly of Oliver followers, and their diverse voices offer a kind of interfaith memorial, grieving and giving thanks to this beloved American artist. Imagine a wake, filled with mournful, thoughtful, philosophical guests telling tales of how they knew her, then spinning off into stories of their own lives and tragedies (“Tell me about despair, yours, and I’ll tell you mine,” goes the line from “Wild Geese”), followed by readings of the poems that touched them most.
These interviewees include Oliver’s former students, religious writers, theologians, good friends and neighbors, fellow poets, and many others who were simply everyday fans. They form a connecting thread, all of them emotionally wrought by her writing and the depths it reveals about the human condition, namely cherishing this magical, marvelous life while accepting the inevitability of death.
And while much of Wild and Precious dives into heavy discussions of mortality and the divine—prepare yourself for the gravity of the second, and longest, of four chapters—what emerges are relatable stories of tragedy and joy from the array of contributors. There’s a woman whose greatest regret is putting down her 80-pound pit bull after he becomes curiously aggressive, another woman who recounts the year that both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer when she was just a teenager, an actor who witnesses a whale in the wild for the first time after living decades in coastal cities, and a bestselling novelist whose father cultivated a basement full of orchids as a respite from his daily stressors as a doctor.
Through these narratives, details surface about Oliver. While teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, she treated students like peers. She showed up to teach right on time—to avoid awkward banter beforehand—her stooped figure usually dressed in jeans and a windbreaker. When one student proposed she serve on his thesis-dissertation committee about Edward Abbey, Oliver gently declined. The student found this curious at the time, but in retrospect, he says, “She didn’t like activism, she liked observation.” In Provincetown, Massachusetts, her hometown for more than 50 years, Oliver never locked her front door until the day she came downstairs to discover an admirer in her living room. In her later life, Oliver started each day reading Rumi, and after being diagnosed with cancer—which she’d eventually succumb to in 2019 at age 83—she tells a friend: “I want to know when it’s the last apple. I want to know when it’s the last cup of coffee.” That same friend read Oliver her poem “When Death Comes” the morning before she slipped away.
There are so many emotional and sad interviewees—some of whom can barely read through the poem that moved them without breaking down into sobs—that I was relieved to hear the exuberant laughter of poet Ross Gay, reminiscing that he, too, loved beans as much as Oliver. The get-real reflections of chef Samin Nosrat offer a similar reprieve: Nosrat notes that Oliver wasn’t some saint, as we might imagine. After attending a reading of Oliver’s in San Francisco, Nosrat remembers, she and a friend planned to drop the poet off at her lodging, “but we had to wait for her because she needed to, like, chain-smoke six cigarettes in the parking lot!”
While I enjoyed the interpretations of the 40 Oliver poems, listening to the actual recitations was frequently frustrating, even those read by Oliver herself. They were often narrated too quickly, making it hard to appreciate anything new. When I read poetry, I linger on poignant words or phrases, returning to them easily. However, there is no such pleasure with the audiobook: my mind would catch on a phrase and begin to turn it over, only to have the remainder of the poem disappear as my thoughts spun away on their own tangent.
Still, there were a few notable exceptions. My absolute favorite recitation was actor Rainn Wilson’s reading of “Humpbacks.” I had no trouble following his strong voice, unhurried pace, and charged cadence, and I loved how the book’s editors retained the seconds of silence that followed, Wilson breathing heavily, still affected. “Even reading it right now, I have such a strong emotional reaction,” he says finally. “It’s just so human, and yet it’s about this glorious beast…. It’s a call to action to live your most vital, passionate life.”
Wilson goes on to elaborate on why that particular poem was so fitting: after living for decades on the West Coast, where he regularly watched for whales, he got his wish in Greenland—and not just a brief fluke appearing from the waves but a grand showing of the creature’s massive body circling slowly three times in a remote harbor as he gazed down from a hillside in awe. Wilson’s staccato speech at the recounting—he almost could not find the words—fully relayed the surprise and wonder of the event.
This is one reason why devotees of Oliver’s poems keep coming back to her work: to be wowed by the wild in ways we can’t adequately express, with poems that imply a hidden spirituality. To get there, she had to spend a lot of time outdoors and had, as actress Busy Philipps puts it, “that gift of just stopping a while and really noticing and asking yourself what’s going on, not only what you know but what you do not know, and how wonderful that mystery is.”
Contemplating life’s mysteries inevitably introduces discussions in Wild and Precious about the ways in which Oliver attempted to reconcile the presence of death, often with dark descriptors but just as often with a certain matter-of-factness.
Cathleen Falsani, a religion writer and journalist, chose to dissect the owl in “Lonely, White Fields,” and I was riveted by the scene she constructs of the animal as death. What a perfect creature for such a metaphor, with its ferocity, majesty, and enormity, wheeling through the darkness nightly looking for prey (its “red and digestible joy,” as Oliver writes). And yet, halfway through the poem, Oliver takes a defensive stance, suggesting it carries out its murderous acts merely as sustainability—not out of malice, but necessity.
“It’s the nonduality she seemed to embrace,” Falsani says. “They’re not good or bad, they’re not beautiful or dangerous—they’re all of that. And that’s life. Life is beautiful and terrible and breathtakingly gorgeous and heartbreaking.”
Wild and Precious is the shared commiseration of things loved and lost. One contributor recounts the anguish and dread she felt as a 14-year-old, when both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer. Her story sits in my heart. She remembers holding the hand of her father as he passed away—something I was never able to do with my parents, both, too, now gone—and seeing him through that exit. She reads “In Blackwater Woods” and reflects on the truths listed in the poem:
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
to let it go.
Her father tells her as much before he dies: None of this life would matter or be so beautiful, he says, if it went on forever.
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