Mary Oliver’s Cancer Poems

The first words I heard read from a Mary Oliver poem were, “You do not have to be good.” Somehow, my minister, a fellow English major with whom I traded T.S. Eliot quotes, knew Mary Oliver’s canon, and I did not. Imagine sitting in church and hearing your minister read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” for the first time.

No walking on knees through the desert required. The desert and barren lands feature so prominently in the Bible that the image is easily a religious one for me. The soft animal of my body? Here is the tenderness of a children’s soft stuffed animal and the vulnerability of anyone open to love. And willing. as well, to sharing the experiences of despair while the natural world moves dependably on. Then there are those geese, calling “harsh and exciting – over and over” to bring you back and to remember “no matter how lonely” we may be, we have a “place in the order of things.”

As a writing tutor, I try to discourage my students from using the word “thing.” It’s so general, so vague, so anything and everything. But here, ending the poem with the order of “things,” I feel a pull not just to the world of humans and society but also to nature and animals; for living “things” that require long and slow looking.

“Wild Geese” opened for me the poetic world of Mary Oliver. I own most of her books and CDs of her reading. Her cancer poem, “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” is found in her collection, Blue Horses, and she reads it in an episode of Krista Tippet’s On Being program. She writes in in four numbered sections which I’ll call, “Diagnosis,” “When the end comes,” “Pay attention,” and “Resilience: A little more of Life”

Like me, and perhaps many who are given a diagnosis of cancer, in her first section, she asks herself why she should be surprised when the cancer “entered the forest of my body without a sound.” We know it’s there, but except for a lump, we cannot feel it and wrap our minds around what it means, having cancer. Once we acknowledge having cancer, we can sometimes move to to extremes.

Oliver asks in the second section, “The question is/what will it be like/after the last day?” Let’s think about death and all it means and what it will be like and what we will miss, because of cancer.

By the third section, something in us has become become resolved and recognizes the terrible importance of each day, “There is so much to admire, to weep over.” We become so fascinated at every moment that we grow easily frustrated with those who do not

“Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then . . . “

We carry the darkness and the light, the fear and the new reckoning with the beauty all around us. Section 4 consists of one image, that of blue flowers, tumbling from shrubs, and lying “wrinkled and faded in the grass.” But in the morning, the blue flowers fill the shrubs again, with not “a single one on the grass.”

The question then becomes how do

“they roll back up to

the branches, that fiercely wanting,

as we all do, just a little more of



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