Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 - January 17, 2019) was a native of Maple Heights in suburban Cleveland, and endured what she called a "dysfunctional" family in part by writing poems and building huts of sticks and grass in the nearby woods. Edna St. Vincent Millay was an early influence and, while in high school, Oliver wrote to the late poet's sister, Norma, asking if she could visit Millay's house in Austerlitz, New York. Norma Millay agreed and Oliver ended up spending several years there, organizing Edna St. Vincent Millay's papers.
Oliver would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose rapturous odes to nature and animal life brought her critical acclaim and popular affection. The author of more than 15 poetry and essay collections, she wrote brief, direct pieces that sang of her worship of the outdoors and disdain for greed, despoilment and other human crimes. One of her favorite adjectives was "perfect," and rarely did she apply it to people. Her muses were owls and butterflies, frogs and geese, the changes of the seasons, the sun and the stars.
"In my outward appearance and life habits I hardly change - there's never been a day that my friends haven't been able to say, and at a distance, 'There's Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook,'" Oliver wrote in "Long Life," a book of essays published in 2004. "But, at the center: I am shaking; I am flashing like tinsel."
Like her hero Walt Whitman, whom she would call the brother she never had, Oliver didn't only observe mushrooms growing in a rainstorm or an owl calling from a black branch; she longed to know and become one with what she saw. She might be awed by the singing of goldfinches or, as in the poem "White Flowers," overcome by a long nap in a field.
Never in my life
had I felt myself so near
that porous line
where my own body was done with
and the roots and the stems and the flowers
Her poetry books included "White Pine," ''West Wind" and the anthology "Devotions," which came out in 2017. She won the Pulitzer in 1984 for "American Primitive" and the National Book Award in 1992 for "New and Selected Poems."
She wrote often of mortality, but with a spirit of gratitude and completion. In "Circles," she pronounced herself "content" not to live forever, having been "filled" by what she saw and believed. In "When Death Comes," she hoped that at the end of life she could look back and see herself as a "bride married to amazement."
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of 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 having simply visited this world.