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Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is an American poet who has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times described her as "far and away, this country's best-selling poet."


Perhaps more than any other poet writing today, Oliver is an inhabitant and deep observer of the natural world, a place without which, she says, she could not be a poet. All of her poems have been "if not finished at least started--somewhere out-of-doors," and her appreciation of the out-of-doors is all encompassing, defiant of standard classifications. "The world," she says, "is made up of cats, and cattle, and fenceposts!" Oliver so embraces the outdoors that one feels terrible for her that "the labor of writing poems" is so antithetical to being in nature. "Only oddly, and not naturally ... are we found, while awake, in the posture of deliberate or hapless inaction," she says. "But such is the posture of the poet, poor laborer." It is our good fortune that she makes the sacrifice, so that we can experience, through her poems, "the nudge, the prick of the instant, the flame of appreciation that shoots from my heels to my head when compass grass bends its frilled branches and draws a perfect circle on the cold sand."

– Jane Steinberg

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Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems

Winter Hours Working Life


“What is autobiography but a story rich and impossible of completion—an intense, careful, expressive, self-interested failure? What can I say to you, therefore, that will be true, and will cast its shadow or its light over the whole body of my telling, of my being here, or who I am?”

-from Winter Hours by Mary Oliver

Essays and Poems:

Snow drifted like sand across the road in front of me. Our car felt lighter without the backseat weighed down by all the books my wife and I had culled from our shelves to prepare for our move. I wasn’t concerned that the rear tires would lose traction because I had driven in the Midwest for a half dozen winters.

Lauren had moved with me from our families in Florida to Iowa where I attended grad school and she got a job working at a nonprofit. After earning my MFA and marrying each other, we stayed. I struggled to find work beyond odd jobs. I feared the security of an office job that would cause me to not want to sit and write before or after work. I couldn’t live on my writing, or at least I couldn’t afford to write for an economic living. And I didn’t want to teach writing because I feared losing what I loved to do.

I had been frozen.

The car’s trunk was filled with a tarp, a ground pad, a sleeping bag, boots, and an external framed bright blue pack that I hadn’t used since crossing over from Cub to Boy Scouts by earning my Arrow of Light and then quitting in sixth grade. I was driving, alone, south to Missouri for a Wilderness First Responder course. I was about to begin a new path toward a non-seasonal job; it seemed like I was always getting a job that didn’t work out. The WFR course would complete my training for an environmental educator job out in Moab, Utah. The only thing I knew about the place was Edward Abbey’s cranky national park memoir Desert Solitaire where he wasn’t really alone; he just wrote his wife and child out of the book.

Underneath the road atlas on the empty passenger seat was a book I couldn’t help buying when I sold our books at a used store. It was a book that I read when I first started writing. A book by a living writer who was a poet but wrote prose in beautiful, quiet sentences that I would come to learn as lyrical. It was a book that began my writing life. A teal upper half of sky, between a navy sailboat cutting along the horizon on top of a turquoise half of sea.


The dust jacket was replaced by forest green vinyl. White Arial font stamped on the spine to read Oliver. The book sat on the poetry shelves back by the bathrooms in the University of Central Florida’s library. I probably picked the book because it was thin and our undergrad workshop class was reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. We had to read several collections during the spring semester and then write a report after each one.

I still have a digital copy of my assignment on Oliver’s self analysis of her poem “The Swan.” I must have skipped Oliver’s first essay “Building a House”—a hard working piece about constructing a tiny shed from locally found scrap: a metaphor for writing a poem—and I doubt that I read the entire book, which is why I wanted to re-read my first encounter with Oliver, or rather, completely read Oliver and write back to that time in my life.

In my paper, I wrote that Oliver “held characteristics of a significant poem” with three musts—or as Oliver actually wrote, “rules”—for herself: 1.) genuine body, 2.) sincere energy, and 3.) spiritual purpose.

I didn’t consider that Oliver also wanted “the poem to ask something, and at its best moments, [she] want[s] the question to remain unanswered.” Oliver believes that a reader must answer the question.

I wrote that “The Swan” included concrete images (genuine body), its shape matched the motion of the animal (sincere energy), and that Oliver suggested heaven incarnate as imagination on earth (spiritual purpose). I don’t know if I knew what I was writing about.

When I read “The Swan” again in a basement apartment before my week-long WFR sessions I could see that Oliver had shaped her zigzagging enjambment like the floating little boat of a swan, or perhaps Shelley’s sailboat that Oliver laments capsizing in a final storm, drifting toward shore and the revelation of its hopeful landing as a joy of survival and the poem itself as an answer to what to do: live, and then write.


What is forgiveness anyway but a terrifying and true opening—a dangerous, purposeful, affective, selfless vulnerability? What could Jakob say to us, right there, that would uncloak the shadow of death he had seen as he served in the oven of the continual Gulf war and took with him on the freezer of Antarctica, as we shared stories already dead and stories yet to live?

When the bloated body bobbed on the ocean, the face tight and white, and the helicopter’s rotors chopping the salty air, he knew the only thing he could do: plop down next to it, or hate. And he plopped, a gloop of a body made of water into a body of water, next to a body soggy with more water. He grasped that slick skin, so they both bobbed on the surface as a rope was flung out of the chopper. But the body did not know it was saved, or if it did its capacity to know was gone with whatever selfish will was gone, the body did not gasp like any living mammal hurled into water and only wanting air, that time was gone, and the body floundered in the ocean.

Years later, Jakob did not see the person in the water. In spite of the winch that hauled them both up where they had plunged in, the body wasn’t a person with a job, or hobbies, or family; it was a bag of meat and bones.

And I thought: I will need to remember that in the wilderness. The bobbing, the plopping, the grasping, and the hauling. Then the surrender of saving, of soul. Then the clear dryness of sanitizer. And the ocean: the depth and the apathy.

The Betrayer

From the beginning she had doubted. By from the beginning I mean as soon as we dated. It was terrible. At first I wondered, What is it? I would be driving, and she would be the passenger. As from the cold of space and unfathomable distance, not retuning but meteoring, the feeling rushed and entered and struck and embedded and settled and stayed.

Always, I wondered, How is she feeling about everything? What’s going on? She would write, I don’t know. I don’t want to hurt him. I gave my heart away before him. And line after line she wrote in her diary, betraying.

Do I know her? I think. I thought. Bangs and pubes. Hangry and frisky. Sadness and giddiness. Disappointment, too. And the commitment. And for all that, does she know me? Who is this person I married less than a year ago?

This dense, opaque, scared betrayer.

“You can have the other words—chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.”

-from Winter Hours by Mary Oliver

Four Poets:

The circle of desk-chairs all faced inward. Every class we workshopped a couple of poems. We said what we thought the poem was about. We said whether we liked the poem or not, and why. We said how the student could improve the poem by breaking lines, swapping out words, or creating rhyme. We said we didn’t know if it was poem. We said, “This image is cliché.” We said, “This image is killer.” We agreed with each other. We disagreed with our instructor. We considered whether or not the poem needed to be confessional, lyrical, narrative, etc.

I turned in sentimental writing. I wrote a sonnet about leaving love notes under the windshield of an ex-girlfriend’s car. I wrote an elegy to my dead grandparents. I wrote a prose-poem about the poor infrastructure and daily grind of a city. I wrote a found poem with lines about God holding the world in His hands.

I remember four undergrads who wrote stellar poems, people who were poets—who inspired me to work at my writing—because they could work their imagination into funny, loving, nostalgic, and urgent writing: Matt Harrison—this sly, lip-pierced, too tight T-shirted, and jeaned guy—who satirically wrote “The One That Got Away” from the point-of-view of an old Ash Ketchum reminiscing about the battle that he lost to capture a Pokèmon. Christina Johnson—this small, quiet gal with sepia blouses that matched her Polaroid photos she took, and corduroy pants like a couch’s slipcover that I wanted to lie my head on—with her “Floral Prints” about a husband who reupholsters a yard sale armchair for his wife who ends up dying before he does and leaving her shape in the cushions. Keri Smith—this strong, but shy gal with a canvas of tattoos, before everyone inked up, down on her skin including beta fish swimming in the fish bowl of her clavicle, a horse skull on her bicep, a pizza slice melting on her shin, and a percolator on the other leg that spilled out the word bubble, “Death before decaf!”—who wove Lorca’s verse Ni hay nadie que, al tocar un recien nacido, olvide las inmoviles calaveras de caballo into her poem “A Death Full of Light” where she walked through her parents’ barn while remembering her little girl self who loved to ride. Curtis Meyer—this functioning Asperger’s guy with slick button ups and slacks, whose voice boomed like an oracle that he raised as a slam poet—and his poem “Value” that tallied all the lives of cells in our bodies that we are responsible for, and that to live isn’t, but actually really is, “no pressure.”

Four poets’ obsessions captivated Oliver and she, too, was inspired to write by their work: Poe’s uncertainty caused by the continual deaths of dark-curled, high-foreheaded, large-eyed, ill women so much like his mother, including his surrogate mother Frances Allan and later his wife (and cousin!) Virginia Clemm who revisited him in “The Haunted Palace.” Frost’s bittersweet control with meter, and fame, as he was put on a pedestal as a Popular Poet (capital Ps!) for being a pastoral poet with a vulnerability written in “My November Guest.” Hopkins’ release from the rigorous Jesuit order with joyful language (rejoice!) on the page where he was constantly “Hurrahing in Harvest.” Whitman (oh, Whitman! her Whitman!) who after caring for the dying as a nurse in the Civil War replicated a miracle of resurrection with his life long rewriting of Leaves of Grass.

“Once I came upon two angels, they were standing quietly, keeping guard beside a car. Light streamed from them, and a splash of flames lay quietly under their feet. What is one to do with such moments, such memories, but cherish them? Who knows what is beyond the known? And if you think that any day the secret of light might come, would you not keep the house of your mind ready?”

-from Winter Hours by Mary Oliver


Sand Dabs Seven*

Danger comes from above and around you.


Don’t do CPR if there is chest trauma, the person is dead, the person is speaking to you, if a body is rotting, if a heart is outside the body, if a head is not attached to the body, if the scene is unsafe.


You won’t know when your judgment fails you.


In the documentary “A Dozen More Turns,” a group of Alaskan grad school skiers gets caught in an avalanche on Mt. Nemesis. One of them snaps his leg and another dies.

“They should have known better,” an urban EMT in the WFR course says.

Would we have known any better?


The best container for water is your body.


Lightning spreads like a stream. The electrical charge flows along the ground gathering ions and then bolts up into the clouds. The safest place to be in a field, during a thunderstorm, is not down, but on a buoy of earth.


We have killed so many rattlesnakes that rattlesnakes now self-select to not grow rattles.

* Six “Sand Dabs” are spread throughout three of Oliver’s books: Winter Hours, Blue Pastures, and West Wind. The sand dab is a small, bony, significant but well-put-together fish.

“I would speak here of the darkness of the world, and the light of _____. But I don’t know what to call it. Maybe hope.”

-from Winter Hours by Mary Oliver

Winter Hours:

What is failure except the lack of achieving a goal? A gulf, chasm, gulch, arroyo, valley—separation of place. You compete but you are defeated. You try but you don’t make it—somewhere. You don’t land. You drift. You carry the fault that didn’t enable you to succeed. You are the cause of your own let down.

What is mercy except underserved leniency, relief, and release?


Because the sessions began at 8:30AM I woke in darkness to journal my WFR training experience and to jot down the curious and inspiring bits of Winter Hours.

The ground-level studio was warm, almost damp since I ran a space heater all night long. The coils glowed as orange as coals and a fan spun, blowing beneath the bed and rising up to me tucked under a comforter. Double doors lead into the one room with a kitchenette and bathroom stall. The studio fit snug under the deck of a social worker’s house. She rented out the space cheaper than a hotel room.

I woke alone in the navy room. The walls were painted light blue and the trim and floorboard and doors were painted a darker blue, but it all looked nearly black like a bruise until I turned on a light.

I worked at a table quadranted off with four stools that tucked underneath, by the legs. Rarely did I experience being alone in the quiet. I did, and didn’t, like it. I liked turning over my thoughts without distraction, except for the distraction that there wasn’t any distraction—that there wasn’t my cat or Lauren or anybody I really knew in the entire state.

I have known loneliness even with being with someone. Or perhaps not loneliness, but despair.

After my journaling and a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal, I suited up in wool socks, long underwear, a turtleneck, synthetic T-shirt, Carhartt pants, a fleece pull-over, an insulated canvas jacket, a scarf, hat with ear flaps, mittens, and waterproof ankle boots. I felt in uniform—that I had a purpose, a duty, to save lives; myself included.

The winter morning air crackled and I steamed, walking up the frosty hill to my car parked at a lesser angle. I turned over the ignition, warming up the oil and the engine. Exhaust plumed from the tailpipe, escaping into the brightening sky.


I had pulled up and shut our garage door. I didn’t like the work I did even though it more than paid the bills. I drove a bus at odd hours of the day, on-calls, and Saturday nights since I was ranked 101 out of 120 drivers. I would sit all day and pay close attention to the road around town and the mall and the university and downtown and everywhere else in between. It wasn’t mindless, it was mindful; exhausting.

Ironically, I had to drive the direct 5 minutes to and from work because I couldn’t regularly catch the bus in time before my shifts. I would have had to ride for 20 minutes and then wait at least another 10 minutes adding an unpaid extra hour to each day.

I felt strapped into my position. I couldn’t just quit. What would I do in Ames that would pay as much? How would I afford to live? How could I go on riding the wheel and feeling unchallenged, but also depleted?

My vision clouded. I switched the fog lights on. Their orange beams cast caution in the filling garage.

I thought about staying. Lauren and I had had a confrontation. I don’t know what to call it. A non-physical fight? An empty debate? An emotional conversation?

We had been married for less than one year. Winter’s coldness still froze the nights of early spring and the tulip bulbs hadn’t sprouted. She didn’t know. I didn’t know. The commitment felt like too much, something we weren’t prepared for. Would this—the unrest, the doubt, the nausea—ever end?

The intoxicating exhaust settled in. It was a thicker smell than the sweetness at the gas pump. Should I get out? I thought about driving off, to not even consider the next thing with work, with Lauren, with my life. It would be even easier to just let the engine run motionless in the garage and floor the pedal so the carburetor would open for gas to flow and burn and take me away.

I turned the key and took it out. I huffed out a toxic breath and opened the car door and waded through the gray haze. I exited all that.


I have never planned to live in the west. I’d been to Colorado as a youth. Once, Lauren and I had visited friends in New Mexico for Albuquerque’s hot air balloon festival. Then, we had honeymooned in Portland, Oregon for a food festival, but spent most of our time at Powell’s Books. We came to know the upper Midwest almost as well as the East Coast and the South where we thought we would return.

I have not forgotten how it feels to be a stranger in a strange land. I still felt strange even after living five years in Iowa. I came to enjoy the corn and casseroles as much as the sand and sweet tea of Florida. I could spot a bur oak better than a magnolia, but I never saw prairie rose while my parents’ neighborhood had multiple orange trees, their blossoms zesting with the acidic hint of future citrus. I loved spotting an Eastern goldfinch darting in a flash above hostas while I detested the hidden repeating and annoying mockingbird mimicking a car alarm from a scrub pine.

I love to figure out the layout of a town, where the roads, trails, stores, houses, and restaurants unfortunately cut down the trees and plants and land. I like the sense of structure, or order, while also wanting those green spaces to wildly push up through the concrete and plywood and rebar. I go to all of the same places a few times to find out what they have and at what cost and how they serve or neglect people. I decide between one or two places and then continue going there. I settle.


From one of the three needs—dwelling—came work in Iowa, occasionally by willingness, or skill. One morning I shoveled dirt from a truck bed into a wheelbarrow and rolled the loads to the backyard of a retired special ed teacher. When I dumped the load, my forearms strained and flexed and released with the tip of dense soil.

I worked with a guy I knew. Work always came from some guy, some project, for some person’s home. Where they already lived. I had cut out windows and sealed flashing under new ones; scraped off paint from Craftsman roofs’ peaks and shellacked on fresh coats; and yanked out pink insulation from rim joists in basements—that would be replaced with sawed foam board, its blue staticky minuscule debris clinging to my jeans—the fiberglass speckled my skin but only cleared in a cold shower so my heated skin’s pores wouldn’t relax and open and accept the shards.

I raked the loads of dirt along a rectangle of 2x4s that would become a cement patio. The rectangle that contained the slurry of concrete was called “the form.” Not a frame, because a frame held a wall before sheets of plywood and then drywall were hammered and hung in place. I loved the language of construction, how the words worked.

Inside the form we crosshatched rebar to support the slurry so the soon-to-seal cement wouldn’t crack. Cement traps water. In basements cement will moisten, feel damp, and then sweat.

We walk on water every day. This is no blind path of faith. This is the road of work.


For years, in the afternoons, I walked down Clark Avenue. Down as in south. Down as in the slope of Ames toward downtown. Down as in whatever to call the spiral and drain and loss of purpose.

On the east sidewalk I treaded hundreds of times. For several seasons I walked to get the sun, even though my home office had a south-facing reading chair. I would follow the shine before the rays filtered through the tree line and then dipped behind the tree line and well before the sun slipped off the edge of the Midwest. Walking out the door was the most difficult step; to go without a need to get anywhere else, but away. I was getting away from loneliness, from a distancing muteness close to neglect. Sometimes in winters between odd jobs and indoor work I wouldn’t talk to anyone except for Lauren the whole gray day.

I didn’t know I would encounter people on my walks, but I did. These were neighbors without names. I guessed they had come to town for the university, or perhaps the railroad. Most likely to get away from farming. They retired and got old and then they were there in their front windows or lawns or gardens. The sweatpantsed man standing on his couch who I wondered if he was tantruming over the cable news or screwing in an overhead light bulb. The lady who shuffled down her driveway to shout, “Stop!” at the rampant Solomon’s seal. The deaf woman who smiled when I gestured at her lilies. The stay-at-home dad raking leaves into piles or shoveling snow or mowing the lawn or seeding the lawn and then giving me the manly nod and, depending on the season, the brim-of-hat tap.


The seasons change. Now an ice storm threatens the end of the WFR weeklong course since the University of Missouri will close the next day. So, tonight, this Thursday, we test out. Answering a multiple-choice test and then splint a leg with a book, pad, jacket, and p-chord. I use Southwestern Homelands, my North Face, a classroom pad, and borrowed rope. I’m in the odd group, the only pair with a plus one. The geography master’s student researching digital terrorism and the undergrad athletic trainer. I forget to include a trucker’s knot in my simple loop and so my half-hitches come loose from femur to shin and the instructor doesn’t like that we’re last. At last, I re-do the entire splint and then we lose the personal trainer to another pair for the final assessment of clearing a spine after a positive mechanism of injury (read: someone fell from a height).

Of course, I support the geography student’s neck and I know where to look for any bruising behind his ears and how to dab his earlobe to check for any cranial fluid leaking and palpate his back and test the feeling in his palm and pinch his fingerpads for capillary refill and take his pulse and cover his eyes to see if the pupils equally and reactively respond to light and create a c-brace with his fleece jacket and ask him his name, where he is, and what month it is. Pain is the answer I don’t want to receive from any question; I ask as he moves his head on his neck left then right and then up and finally down like the cardinal directions, east and west, and north and south. Finally, Dan, at Mizzou, during January, is cleared.

There is a place on the road home where my eyes droop while listening to the Black-Eyed Blonde on CD. I roll the windows down when the exhumed Philip Marlowe isn’t enough to keep me awake. How the chill snaps my eyes fully open! I stagger the stops I make for coffee so I don’t crash with the lack of caffeine or the jittery blur of happiness, returning to Lauren.

During the WFR course, Lauren and I texted and talked to continue to dwell together even as we were apart and were readying to leave. Overnight, I drive to our garage, to our place, to our door that we continue to open for each other.


Darkness is the best time to write. I mean my emotional and woken and environmental state. Perhaps something wrong or just rising or shadowed, the thing that needs lightening, lightning, light, is what I like to work with.

In the act of writing an essay, I am loyal, and wandering. As much as I can I neglect the rest of the day—hunger, work, communication—and attempt to submerge in my mind both memory and how I recall. I think, What do I know? What I consider is a tangle to undo and then weave into something useable. Oliver writes of hearing a song, a whisper, a voice. I am no Oliver yet, but I know of that language inside myself. Every essayist attempts to listen to it. You can learn the rules for the dance, but not the feel. You can hope for talent, but not style. Hope for ability. It is real and spiritual. It is a possession, and ephemeral. Perhaps it’s why I jot on scrapes of paper and then scribble them together on lined notebooks. My laptop only helps me get the supplies in order, ready to construct.


I could not be an essayist without work. Someone else could. But not me. For me, the experiences pile up. During a driving shift, in a garden plot, or on a ladder I work toward a physical exhaustion that fills a mental reserve—a tap to pour out with writing. I learn, and then write, how doing something affects me.

Perhaps I’m a working writer. But there’s always a tension between needing to work and wanting to write but not wanting to write for work. I also don’t want to be a communist or union organizer or whatever would be a writer writing for workers. I document my own labor: pay, hours, and skill and treatment and interpersonal relationships and lack of lunch breaks. What I write begins with the shifts and doesn’t end after work. Maybe I would become an activist if I got comfortable. But I haven’t. I don’t consider the gross domestic product, international trade agreements, or inflation rates. I am just going to work and riding the wheel, digging with a trowel, slinging a brush and then coming home with an experience. This is an unfortunately usual way to live—non-mystical, scraping by.

The world makes a distinction between work: digging ditches or going to meetings. There is a false divide between the same sort of taxing menial, repetitive tasks. You strain your back or you widen your ass. What’s the difference between physical and mental jobs? Education, opportunity, nepotism? There are carpenters torquing nails out of siding who spend nights reading Cormac McCarthy. There are English professors writing mysteries who cut cedars with a chainsaw. There are research scientists advocating for rye as cover crop who fill their freezers with hunted waterfowl. There are bakers punching down swollen sourdough who practice transcendental meditation. There are vegetable farmers spot weeding brussel sprouts who attend racial equality town halls. The world is made up of fiber optic cables, ballpoint pens, and screws. A diesel is alive. The screen of the phone and the screen inset on a hinged door that lets in the flow, but not the bugs, is circulatory. There is breath in all work.

What I want to emanate in my essays is the feeling—both physical and emotional—of knowing the job, the trajectory toward mastery that occurs on a no set-up turn, the pluck of a taproot, or the slide of a primer coat.

There is something special in this, I believe. It creates something. Writing work is a way of clocking-in with a subject. You become what it is. With your muscle—brain or brawn—you live as you work. The muse is the planned, the effortful, the constructed—not the flighty, the sporadic. You work, and you notice. You are purposeful in order to be fulfilled. You consider how to do a job by doing it, and then telling it. Each evening, you come home and your beloved says—always—How was work? The answer comes as a narrative reconstructed.


Lauren and I met when we were in our early twenties. For myself it was so adult—a shared bed and split bills. Coupling. We have lived together for a half-dozen years, without an end. I have told lots about it. Confession, the over-share in our selfish world, has been a catharsis of youth. We are forgiven, and we try again. We are both yoked, and maturing, together. Repeat: we are forgiven, and we try again. We work with sincerity, goofiness, kindness, and forgiveness. Whenever I write something angry it lacks my life with Lauren. Whenever I write something hopeful it is my heart yearning to live it with Lauren. This is my life’s work.

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