Tears today for the beautiful life and work of Mary Oliver.

In late 2016 I submitted a solicited piece on her poetry to The Christian Century. They decided not to run it. We parted amicably on the matter (well, I Image result for mary oliver earth skirtswas a little vexed).

But that same afternoon I took a long walk on the beach (something Mary Oliver did almost every day of her life) and wrote another piece entirely in my head (something I never do).

I went back to the house where I was staying (I was on sabbatical and in Southport, NC at the time, thanks to my generous friend, Nola). I stayed up all night transcribing the thing. I sent it to The Christian Century the next morning (something I normally would never do—no editing? no second guessing? are you kidding?). It was received enthusiastically and ran as the cover story in April 2017.

The original piece was reworked and published last year in The Cresset, a journal dedicated to literature, the arts, and public affairs. It explored a topic that had consumed me for a long time: the charge of sentimentality in Oliver’s work. Responding to what I considered an irresponsible critique of Oliver in First Things (not surprised they published it), I noted how sentimentality as a putdown is often itself sentimental, and that it is almost always gendered in ways that go unnoticed and unreflected upon.

I love that piece.

Which is something the constitutionally-insecure me would never say. Why do I say it now? Because Mary.

Mary Oliver didn’t need to be defended or rescued by me. But today as the surprising waves of grief have washed over me, I’ve been reminded, again and  again, poem by luscious poem, how she and her life-giving words have saved me.

[NB: In his new book, He Held Radical LightChristian Wiman has a personal story about Oliver that is, by turns, tender, funny, wise, beautiful, and a little horrifying–in other words, classic Mary Oliver.]

And the poem below might be my favorite. It’s not well-known. Oliver wrote it when she was in her late 20s. Alone, it stands, in my view, as one of her best; if you know something about the trauma she endured as a child, it takes on an even deeper poignancy.

Rest well, Mary Oliver, lover of words and the world and their happy meeting. May the earth, as you once wrote, take you back tenderly.

“The Return”

The deed took all my heart.
I did not think of you,
Not ’til the thing was done.
I put my sword away
And then no more the cold
And perfect fury ran
Along my narrow bones
And then no more the black
And dripping corridors
Hold anywhere the shape
That I had come to slay.
Then for the first time,
I saw in the cave’s belly
The dark and clotted webs,
The green and sucking pools,
The rank and crumbling walls,
The maze of passages.

And I thought then
Of the far earth,
Of the spring sun
And the slow wind,
And a young girl,
And I looked then
At the white thread.

Hunting the minotaur
I was no common man
And had no need of love.
I trailed the shining thread
Behind me, for a vow,
And did not think of you.
It lay there, like a sign,
Coiled on the bull’s great hoof.
And back into the world,
Half blind with weariness
I touched the thread and wept.
O, it was frail as air,
And I turned then
With the white spool

Through the cold rocks,
Through the black rocks.
Through the long webs,
And the mist fell,
And the webs clung.
And the rocks tumbled,
And the earth shook.

And the thread held.