National Poetry Month — When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

For my first day of "Poem Conversations" to celebrate National Poetry Month, I asked my mom if I could send her a poem, and she’d send me her thoughts. She agreed.

Truthfully, I don’t consider my mom a poetry dolt. One of my earliest memories comes from when I was around three years old and my mom was in college. She took me with her one day to English class. I remember nothing about the class, except that everyone but me was quiet and listening to this person at the front talk about a poem or a story, or something I didn’t understand. WORDS, it was words. It was almost like church. People were reverent. (Or maybe they were asleep, but I was three. It seemed like church.) (And Mom, if it wasn’t actually an English class, don’t tell me. I like thinking it was that early exposure that primed the pump for me to become a writer, and I’m pretty sure it was an English class even if you don’t remember it as such.)

Anyway, my mom loves to read fiction. She just doesn’t read that much poetry, unless it’s mine. (I’m willing to bet the money in my purse that if you asked her who her favorite poet is, she’d either say me or Carl Sandburg, and she probably hasn’t read Carl Sandburg in 20 years.)

I didn’t want to throw her a curve ball so I chose Mary Oliver, one of the more accessible contemporary poets. I couldn’t recall the exact poem I wanted to share but I knew there was something about coins in a purse. My mom used to periodically clean out her purse and whichever child guessed closest to the correct amount of change she found "won" the change. The poem, When Death Comes, has little to do with my memory of our guessing game, but as soon as I found it, I knew it was the one I wanted to share with Mom.

Here’s a bit for you:

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

You can must read the rest here.

My mom said her favorite part was:

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

Hmm. To tell you the truth, I was a little surprised that was her favorite part. My mom is a dreamer, just like me. I took her more for the type to hone in on these lines found later in the poem . . .

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms.

. . . you know, all that live life to the fullest, dream big dreams hubris she has passed on to my heart from hers.
But no, it was the part about the cottage of darkness that drew her in.

Full of surprises, that woman.

She explained herself:

I can remember as a child being fearful of death; afraid that I would die and leave Mama or afraid that she would die and leave me. However, now, with so many loved ones having already died, I am looking forward to "what it’s going to be like." The wonder of it excites me now.

I guess for someone who has embraced life to the fullest, it’s not that difficult to embrace the thought of death. That’s my mom.

I just got a second note from her (evidence the poem stuck with her and she’s still mulling over it. Hooray for poetry that sticks!)

She said:

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I also loved this part.

When it is 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 simply having visited this world.

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I hope (and pray) that when I am gone . . . I haven’t simply visited this world without leaving pieces of me behind.

Not to worry, Mom. There are pieces of you — who you are, who you’ve shaped us to be — that will outlive us both.


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17 thoughts on “National Poetry Month — When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

    1. I’m really looking forward to them too. Some of the conversations are already done, but not all of them. It’s been a really interesting exercise. And I’ve really bonded with people over poetry!

  1. It was an English class

    Yes, it was an English class and I remember you going with me. I can’t remember why though. I’m amazed that you remember.

  2. Oh, this line:

    When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement.

    This was a lovely, lovely post to stumble across this afternoon. Thank you and your mom and Mary Oliver, too!

  3. I hadn’t read that Oliver poem (so much still to read) but this part,

    When it is 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 simply having visited this world.

    well, it made me cry.

    Thank you.

  4. This is really wonderful! I love the poems you’ve chosen and the whole idea of having poetic conversations with people in your life. Thanks for leaving me a comment about it. I am adding you to my round up now.

    This post is really delightful! The memories and the sweet conversations with your mom about this poem – priceless! Mary Oliver is a fabulous poet and this poem really touches me. I am with your mom – my favorite part is the lines, “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
    what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? ”

    I’m looking forward to reading here every day for poetry!

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