Jan 15 2021

Mary Oliver – In Blackwater Woods

Published by at 9:18 am under Poetry

In Blackwater Woods
by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

— from American Primitive, by Mary Oliver


/ Image by Claudio /

This is one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver. It speaks to so many levels of the human experience.

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light…

Those opening lines draw me in every time I read them. They remind me that nature, too, is a heavenly realm. But there is also the beginning hint of loss here, something evanescent and fleeting. It is as if these trees, in their glow, are fading from the physical world, receding from us. It is a lovely, melancholy sort of transcendence.

Lines in this poem also suggest to me, at times, formless awareness:

and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.

Notice the intentional ambiguity of that final line break above. She could be saying that the ponds are now nameless, or that they are nameless Now, nameless Presence. Contemplating that double meaning can throw the mind into meditation.

She uses a similar line break immediately preceding that: “name is, is”. The break forces us unconsciously to think of how no matter what a place (or person) is named, it IS. It’s existence is undeniable, not somehow dependent on human definitions or categories or names. The line break tricks the mind into contemplating the relationship between pure being and our mental categorization of existence.

But the part of the poem that touches me most is the courageous willingness to embrace both connection and loss:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.


Recommended Books: Mary Oliver

New and Selected Poems Why I Wake Early Dream Work House of Light Thirst: Poems
More Books >>


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

US (1935 – 2019) Timeline
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

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One Response to “Mary Oliver – In Blackwater Woods”

  1. Lilias Darcy-Foxon 18 Jan 2021 at 4:30 am

    This is a poem I love, it strikes at the very marrow of my bones. I have loved a community of trees by a Monastery which I used to pass every day and would speak to them (if no one was around !!) sometimes just listen to their rustling whispers . There were 12 of them in all and their presence was powerfully serene. Now that I have moved from the village I miss them but I remember and i am certain so do they.

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