Nov 14 2012

Mary Oliver – When Death Comes

Published by at 11:10 am under Poetry

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

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


/ Photo by AlicePopkorn /

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 in it fully!






Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Mary Oliver

US (1935 – )
Secular or Eclectic

Mary Oliver was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935.

As a young writer, Mary Oliver was influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay and, in fact, as a teenager briefly lived in the home of the recently deceased Millay, helping to organize Millay’s papers.

Mary Oliver attended college at Ohio State University, and later at Vassar College.

Mary Oliver’s poetry is deeply aware of the natural world, particularly the birds and trees and ponds of her adopted state of Massachusetts.

Her collection of poetry “American Primitive” won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.

More poetry by Mary Oliver

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Mary Oliver – When Death Comes”

  1. Pegon 14 Nov 2012 at 3:27 pm

    yes, this is just the right flavor! My couch is a friend as the taste of burn permeates my mouth and brain. Another burn off while I lie in fetal waiting for my body’s resurrection. Death is expansion and the greater breath. Peace

  2. Moira Sheedyon 14 Nov 2012 at 3:36 pm

    “I was a bride married to amazement”

    What a profound metaphor of a life lived well. Thank you.

  3. Yewtreeon 14 Nov 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Wonderful poem, and very comforting actually.

  4. Tom McFerranon 15 Nov 2012 at 10:57 am

    When death comes . . .

    It’s not always like this,
    these times when she goes,
    these times when she slips away
    briefly, to her other-world,
    these times when I do not see her beauty in the rose,
    these times when she goes, away,
    . . . . it’s not always like this.

    Sometimes, she creeps back inside me unobserved
    when I’m feeling unprepared, undeserved,
    when I see the sparkle of her eyes in starlight,
    when I see her dark complexion in a moonless night
    when I see her lovely locks
    draped over windswept hollyhocks
    . . . . sometimes, it’s like this.

    Always it’s like this,
    when my heart beats fast with aching, yearning,
    when I shudder with impending disaster,
    when all comes together faster and faster,
    when I sink, when I drown,
    spiralling down into her maelstrom,
    . . . . always, it’s like this,
    She comes.

    Tom McFerran.

  5. jim carlinon 15 Nov 2012 at 3:25 pm

    contentment isn’t getting
    everything we want
    but
    enjoying what we have

  6. rena navonon 16 Nov 2012 at 6:03 am

    “…when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse, to buy me…”
    seems to bear a contradiction between the shiny attributes we identify with the good life and the debit of getting crassly sold in the end after we have fully lived. Mary Oliver knows how to reconcile herself to the cruelties of our human condition with brave decision never to succumb without speaking as clearly as her coined idiom allows her to. I never cease to admire her personal bravery and honesty, all the while making peace with what can challenge her so abruptly. No namby pamby, she doesn’t go down without having her say, paradoxically remaining a forgiving, grateful person in the face of all the odds she continues to embrace.

  7. [...] the wonderful, daily poetry chaikhana, this poem from November 14th . . [...]

  8. Katharineon 16 Nov 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Death is my companion these days. I await a transplant, and it may not come in time. This poem is perfect. Thank you very much!

  9. Ivan M. Grangeron 16 Nov 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Sending love and healing blessings, Katharine. ~Ivan

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply