Blue Horses: Poems by Mary Oliver

Bless the words with which I try to say
What I see, think, or feel.
With gratitude for the grace of the earth.
The expected and the exception, both.
For all the hours I have been given to
Be in this world.
– Mary Oliver (“Good Morning”)


Few poets capture the world with such ethereal grace and strict joy as Mary Oliver. In her 2014 collection, Blue Horses, she returns to some of her most poignant and witty moods to remark on nature, life, death, and just about everything else. In her beloved way, Oliver avoids her work becoming overly stylized by not really styling (or, at least, not visibly, earnestly styling) it at all.

“Stay young, always, in the theater of your mind.”

Her poems become conversations with the reader, the result of the way Oliver sees life with dauntless curiosity and an open heart. Her rhetoric takes on the vivacity of a delighted child, with a child’s wisdom – a wisdom gained by being open to the world as a rule. In her commonplace subject matter she uncovers opportunity for laughter, while in her consideration of the natural world she delivers the trademark significance her readers have come to love with as much otherworldly lyricism as ever before.

Oh, mother earth,
Your comfort is great, your arms never withhold.
It has saved my life to know this.
from “Loneliness” by Mary Oliver (Blue Horses)

The collection’s first poem, “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond”, draws the reader gently into the wild world of Oliver’s imagination as the poet observes a heron at mealtime, turning the circle of life into a kaleidoscope of wonderment. Meanwhile in poems like “What I Can Do”, “First Yoga Class”, and “On Meditating, Sort Of” Oliver turns the narrative spotlight onto herself, poking fun at gracelessness, age, and technology. But within those poems lies, as is so often hidden in her work (or sometimes put on valiant display), a profundity that sparks the imagination and ignites a deep shift in perspective.

Of particular note and celebration within Blue Horses is “Rumi”, a poem dedicated to Coleman Barks, the poet responsible for interpreting many of Rumi’s works, and paying homage to the great Sufi mystic. For those who read poetry as soul food, to have Oliver writing about Rumi is undoubtedly the jewel in the artistry’s crown. The poet doesn’t disappoint, speaking words at the heart of every Rumi enthusiast and capturing his effect on readers with an honesty and simplicity that only a Mary Oliver poem can deliver.

When Rumi went into the tavern
I followed.
I heard a lot of crazy talk
And a lot of wise talk.

But the roses wouldn’t grow in my hair.

When Rumi left the tavern
I followed.
I don’t mean just to peek at such a famous fellow.
Indeed he was rather ridiculous with his
long beard and his dusty feet.
But I heard less of the crazy talk and
a lot more of the wise talk and I was
hopeful enough to keep listening

until the day I found myself
transformed into an entire garden
of roses.
“Rumi” by Mary Oliver (Blue Horses)

As a dedicated Mary Oliver fan – one who memorizes poems like “Why I Wake Early” and sets her pulse to the tune of “Wild Geese” – one particular poem stood out in Blue Horses that especially felt as though Oliver was reaching out the light of her wisdom and illuminating a forgotten, unspoken piece of my soul. That was “I Don’t Want to Be Demure or Respectable”:

I don’t want to be demure or respectable.
I was that way, asleep, for years.
That way, you forget too many important things.
How the little stones, even if you can’t hear them, are singing.
How the river can’t wait to get to the ocean and the sky, it’s been there before.
What traveling is that!
It is a joy to imagine such distances.
I could skip sleep for the next hundred years.
There is a fire in the lashes of my eyes.
It doesn’t matter where I am, it could be a small room.
The glimmer of gold Böhme saw on the kitchen pot
was missed by everyone else in the house.
from “I Don’t Want to Be Demure or Respectable” by Mary Oliver (Blue Horses)

In “Blueberries” and “The Mangroves”, the poet turns her attention from the New England wilds that have long dominated her work’s atmosphere to her Florida residence where she comes to terms with the foreignness of the tropical beauty and learns to handle what she discovers there with as much compassion and curiosity as her northern world. But then, in poems like “Such Silence”, she returns us to the familiar territory of her prose: an anonymous bench in an anonymous forest where she waits on angels and does not see them “only, I think, because I didn’t stay long enough.”

The title poem in the collection is named after the cover’s artwork, which was painted by 19th century German expressionist artist Franz Marc. Oliver’s poem describes her feeling of the painting and her experience of falling in love with the work. It’s an apt and beautiful tribute to a stirring creation by an artist whose career ended far too soon (he died at only 36).

Some days I fall asleep, or land in that
Even better place – half-asleep – where the world,
Spring, summer, autumn, winter –
Flies through my mind in its
Hardy ascent and its uncompromising descent.

So I just lie like that, while distance and time
Reveal their true attitudes: they never
Heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.
from “On Meditating, Sort Of” by Mary Oliver (Blue Horses)

With her subliminal charisma and earth-shaking, wide-eyed, compassionate wisdom, Mary Oliver once again proves herself with Blue Horses; her poems are truly food for the soul and fuel for the spirit. With a turn of phrase, Oliver summons the child in all of us – indeed, she summons the child in all things – and spreads onto that child the stardust of her great love.

By: Literary Inklings, Casee Marie