Mary Oliver

Why I Wake Early

“Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.”

The world is an emptier place without new words from American poet Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019). Though she’d demur: “I’ve written enough. See and enjoy.”

And she’d be right. In this bright, simple, and imminently approachable collection of hitherto unpublished poems, Why I Wake Early, Mary Oliver calls arranging flowers “fifteen minutes of music with nothing playing,” contemplates the unknowable divine, and cherishes the earth in all its bits and parts.

From “Why I Wake Early”:

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even,
the miserable and the crotchety.

John Constable’s “Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow,” 1836, one of Constable’s many “Heath” pictures that captured the value of this London escape as a place to enter thoughts and depths. Learn more.

The collection dances betwixt certainty and question. Doubt and reason. Oliver brings us to the sea, the field, into the universe itself and peers into their darker, unanswered fragments.

From “Something”:

Something fashioned
this yellow-white lace-mass
that the sea has brought to the shore and left.

Frothy yellow and white waves arrive ashore in Eastbourne, UK. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Something” is a word Henry David Thoreau used to explain the great thing that connects all. Oliver, who had a deep love and understanding for both Thoreau and Emerson, was in many ways a Transcendentalist. Looking for elsewhere, an eternal, a “music of the masters” to quote German poet Hermann Hesse.

But while Oliver dips her toes in currents, strokes rocks and wonders what carries us forth, it is the art, the poetry, created by the act of wondering that is the miraculous pulse of this collection (and all of Oliver’s work).

“The Old Poets of China”:

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

This rejected busyness is persistent, at times angry.1 But pushing that aside, Oliver shows us that the world is full of things that can “kill us with delight like a needle,” and that not paying attention to this “untrimmable light” would be unthinkable.

Look and notice. Wonder, like biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson did. Linger in happiness and, Oliver asks most of all, imagine a small stone, buried for thousands of years, finally being touched by a drop of rain. As we all long to be touched, affected.

Scatter yourself into nature with Oliver and others in my look at “The Importance of Walking About” or consider Oliver’s unknowable divine in “A Singular Focus on the Eternal.”

Like Oliver, who opened her day in kindness, American author George Saunders contemplated how to anchor himself in an abundance of kindness. Saunders found kindness is what remains when all else fails.

Mary Oliver illustration. © The Examined Life