When Death Comes

by Mary Oliver


Original Language English

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom; taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

-- from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Last week, when I asked for your favorite poems featured in the Poetry Chaikhana as suggestions for the upcoming anthology, several of you recommended works by Mary Oliver. I'd love to include several of her poems, but I think it's unlikely that I'll be able to get her publisher's reprint permissions. So, for now, we'll just have to appreciate her poetry all the more in these poem emails (and, of course, in her books).


We recently had another eclipse. It's been a difficult time for many of us, uncertainty, fears, changes. Death keeps coming up, both literal and metaphorical.

When I came across this poem, I thought it was a perfect choice...

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn>/i>

It is a meditation on death, but it isn't really a poem that dwells on fear or loss. Instead, Mary Oliver uses death as a way to be present, to see, and to open to the big questions.

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?


I love the lines--

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood


The words are simple, but she gives us a vision in which all of existence is an interwoven tapestry. Without grand images, she suggests a communion of all things where every experience is recognized as a shared experience. Even crossing the threshold of death becomes part of that brotherhood and sisterhood of being.

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,


These are words that make me giddy... and silent. These two lines are, for me, the heart of the entire poem. "Each name" is each individual person or thing, each unit of unique, life-filled identity. They have become "comfortable" and "music," a sense of restful, meaningful harmony. Yet with all the vitality and IS-ness suggested by a name, they all tend to subside into silence. This is both a suggestion of death and also profound meditation or communion. Sidestepping all fearful projections, death has become a restful expansion, the embodiment of peace, fulfillment.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom; taking the world into my arms.


Now there's a good motto to live by! Satisfaction at the time of death isn't about bucket lists or bank accounts. It's not found through having possessed things or even experiences, nor by engineering impressive accomplishments. I suspect, along with Mary Oliver, that real contentment is found at the end of a life when we can say that we felt our lives, that we saw it with our full attention, embraced it, so that everything, the great and the terrible and all the mundane in between, revealed itself to be worthy of wonder.

The goal isn't to have had a perfect life but to have participated in life -- with eyes and heart open.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.


Have a beautiful day! Participate!



Recommended Books: Mary Oliver

Why I Wake Early New and Selected Poems House of Light American Primitive What Do We Know: Poems and Prose Poems
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When Death Comes