Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mary Oliver: "To Begin With, the Sweet Grass"

Will the hungry ox stand in the field and not eat
    of the sweet grass?
Will the owl bite off its own wings?
Will the lark forget to lift its body in the air or
    forget to sing?
Will the rivers run upstream?

Behold, I say—behold
the reliability and the finery and the teachings
    of this gritty earth gift.

Eat bread and understand comfort.
Drink water, and understand delight.
Visit the garden where the scarlet trumpets
    are opening their bodies for the hummingbirds
who are drinking the sweetness, who are
    thrillingly gluttonous.

For one thing leads to another.
Soon you will notice how stones shine underfoot.
Eventually tides will be the only calendar you believe in.

And someone's face, whom you love, will be as a star
both intimate and ultimate,
and you will be both heart-shaken and respectful.

And you will hear the air itself, like a beloved, whisper:
oh, let me, for a while longer, enter the two
beautiful bodies of your lungs.

The witchery of living
is my whole conversation
with you, my darlings.
All I can tell you is what I know.

Look, and look again.
This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes.

It's more than bones.
It's more than the delicate wrist with its personal pulse.
It's more than the beating of the single heart.
It's praising.
It's giving until the giving feels like receiving.
You have a life—just imagine that!
You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe
   still another.

Someday I am going to ask my friend Paulus,
the dancer, the potter,
to make me a begging bowl
which I believe
my soul needs.

And if I come to you,
to the door of your comfortable house
with unwashed clothes and unclean fingernails,
will you put something into it?

I would like to take this chance.
I would like to give you this chance.

We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we
Congratulations, if
   you have changed.

Let me ask you this.
Do you also think that beauty exists for some
   fabulous reason?

And, if you have not been enchanted by this adventure—
   your life—
what would do for you?

What I loved in the beginning, I think, was mostly myself.
Never mind that I had to, since somebody had to.
That was many years ago.
Since then I have gone out from my confinements,
   though with difficulty.
I mean the ones that thought to rule my heart.
I cast them out, I put them on the mush pile.
They will be nourishment somehow (everything is nourishment
somehow or another).

And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.
I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.
I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned,
I have become younger.

And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?
Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.

"To Begin With, the Sweet Grass" by  Mary Oliver. Text as published in Evidence: Poems (Beacon Press, 2010).

Curator's note: A very long poem today, but I didn't have the heart to break it into excerpts. Please take time with it. Savor it. The "friend Paulus" to whom Oliver refers is Paulus Berensohn, dancer, potter, teacher, ecologist.... Read more about him, or watch a trailer from a documentary about his life and work.

Art credit: Untitled photograph of Paulus Berensohn holding one of his beautiful clay bowls, by True Kelly (digitally enhanced by curator).


  1. Mary Oliver may not write Haiku, like some, yet every phrase is a gem- well worth the reading; the absorbing. You were write not to change this or any poem. Thank you.

    1. Love what you say about every phrase being a gem. So often true of her work!

  2. Read and reread this amazing writing and it will resonate with your soul .It incapsulates the essence of what life is about .A jewel of a poem .It made me glow .

  3. ...,touches my heart and my soul!

  4. I know psychiatry tells us to love ourselves, but when we "come out of our confinements" we learn there is so much more--more of both beauty and hope.

  5. "(everything is nourishment
    somehow or another)."

    So much wisdom and truth in that line.

    I love that you found a picture of the actual Paulus with a bowl. Perfect.

  6. There is no poem that can compare to the comfort of this one.


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