American Primitive


Lately, I've been trying to disconnect from technology in my spare time (more on that soon), and I've found myself reading more as a consequence. One of my favorite literary discoveries of the year is Mary Oliver, the late, great American poet.

Oliver's poetry is hauntingly beautiful, but also very accessible for poetry novices such as myself. A few weeks ago, I took a library copy of Oliver's Pulitzer-winning volume of poetry American Primitive along for a walk in Central Park and ended up finishing it in a single sitting, shaded from the summer sun by a tulip-tree. Since I don't have any content yet on this website, I share two of my favorite Oliver poems below. Enjoy!

In Blackwater Woods

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.


There is, all around us, this country of original fire. You know what I mean. The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something has to be holding our bodies in its rich and timeless stables or else we would fly away.

Off Stellwagen off the Cape, the humpbacks rise. Carrying their tonnage of barnacles and joy they leap through the water, they nuzzle back under it like children at play.

They sing, too. And not for any reason you can’t imagine.

Three of them rise to the surface near the bow of the boat, then dive deeply, their huge scarred flukes tipped to the air. We wait, not knowing just where it will happen; suddenly they smash through the surface, someone begins shouting for joy and you realize it is yourself as they surge upward and you see for the first time how huge they are, as they breach, and dive, and breach again through the shining blue flowers of the split water and you see them for some unbelievable part of a moment against the sky– like nothing you’ve ever imagined– like the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of darkness, pouring heavenward, spinning; then

they crash back under those black silks and we all fall back together into that wet fire, you know what I mean.

I know a captain who has seen them playing with seaweed, swimming through the green islands, tossing the slippery branches into the air. I know a whale that will come to the boat whenever she can, and nudge it gently along the bow with her long flipper. I know several lives worth living.

Listen, whatever it is you try to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you like the dreams of your body, its spirit longing to fly while the dead-weight bones toss their dark mane and hurry back into the fields of glittering fire where everything, even the great whale, throbs with song.

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