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

Mary Oliver passed away last week. She is a favorite poet among the Poetry Chaikhana readers. When I feature her poems, I always receive lots of responses. Her sense of the natural world and how it opens us up and invites us into a deeper sense of self has made her poetry beloved the world over. Even when her poems contemplate difficult subjects, illness and death, she has a gentle touch, a universal kindness that comes from inner quiet and wisdom.

Thank you, Ms. Oliver, for your gift of poetry to the world. We are better people because you passed through...


When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn


This poem 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


She gives us a wonderful 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 this symphony of life that is the music made by so many voices, that music tends to subside into silence. This is both a suggestion of death, but also a recognition that the real beauty of music is in how its vibration subtly reminds us of the grand silence it fills. We can expand this idea to say that all of life, all of manifestation, is a magical pageant that, through its moments of cruelty and compassion and grand dramas, eventually brings us to the recognition of the living stillness that underlies it all.

Sidestepping all fearful projections, death becomes a restful expansion, the embodiment of peace, the return to source.

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: I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. 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 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 lived our lives, that we gave it our full attention, embraced it, so that everything, the great and the terrible and all the mundane in between, revealed its 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.

A reminder to us all to keep our curiosity and wonder -- and to participate!

Have a beautiful day!

---

PS- I didn't quite get things organized enough to send out a poem on Monday, as I had planned, in honor of Martin Luther King. I did, however, post a Langston Hughes poem on Facebook, along with some thoughts I shared last year about King's powerful legacy and how we tend to get a comfortably sanitized version of his message in popular culture today.

If you'd like to read it, here's the link to the Poetry Chaikhana Facebook page.



Recommended Books: Mary Oliver

New and Selected Poems Why I Wake Early Dream Work House of Light Thirst: Poems
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When Death Comes