“Forgive Me” by Mary Oliver

Angels are wonderful but they are so, well, aloof.
It’s what I sense in the mud and the roots of the
trees, or the well, or the barn, or the rock with
its citron map of lichen that halts my feet and
makes my eyes flare, feeling the presence of some
spirit, some small god, who abides there.

If I were a perfect person, I would be bowing
I’m not, though I pause wherever I feel this
holiness, which is why I’m so often late coming
back from wherever I went.

Forgive me.

Mary Oliver, Blue Horses, 2014, Penguin Press.

11 thoughts on ““Forgive Me” by Mary Oliver

    1. I joke with my friend Michelle that I have an elephant brain, in that I rarely forget anything (a blessing and a curse). As odd as this will sound, I thought of you when choosing this poem.
      Many moons ago, I remember when you were “over the moon” to soon be receiving Blue Horses for your library. I remember your joy, and how I wish everyone could feel that way about books, poetry books in particular.
      So now whenever I see a piece from Blue Horses, I think of you, and I smile. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Your first paragraph in the comment above captures Mary’s essence for me.
    Her poems read like prayers (hello, sun in my face).
    The spirituality of God without the judgement of religion.
    I am so glad you’re back. xo

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Will Grimes

    The idea of angels is not new, of course, but angels are not frequent characters in our current literature. They appear in Tony Kushner’s play _Angels in America_. We meet one in _Michael_, staring John Travolta, but angels are more the exception than the rule. Usually we find angels in what are now ancient holy books and in the works of celebrated poets like John Donne and John Milton, but poets, nonetheless, from different and decidedly earlier eras. So the mention of one in a contemporary poem is arresting and causes bumps at least in my firmament and echoes back for me to another more or less contemporary poet.

    When I read Mary Oliver’s “Forgive Me”, with her initial reference to “Angels” that are “wonderful” but “so . . . aloof”, and then her references to natural things like “the roots of the trees”, “rocks” as well as man made things like “the well. or the barn”, I could not help but recall the startling, opening lines found in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The First Elegy” that Stephen Mitchell translated.

    In his opening Duino elegy, Rilke asks: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me / suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed / in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains / to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying. // And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note / of my dark sobbing. Ah, whom can we ever turn to / in our need? Not angels, not humans, / and already the knowing animals are aware / that we are not really at home in / our interpreted world. Perhaps there remains for us / some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take / into our vision; there remains for us yesterday’s street / and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease / when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.”

    Mary Oliver sees the angels as aloof. Rilke sees them in a similar fashion “it [beauty? the angel? are they the same thing?] serenely disdains / to annihilate us.” This distance from a higher order of God (angels) is counteracted in both poems, I think, by an attachment to the natural or to some man made objects (for Rilke: trees on a hillside or yesterday’s streets) (for Oliver: roots of the tree or the barn or the well). Our attachments to the quotidian objects in our lives allow us, these poets suggest, to find the sacred or the divine in a way that does not overwhelm us. [At least that seems to be what Oliver contends.] The sacred becomes available to us in the mundane, if we care to pay attention.

    There is, then, a special irony when Mary Oliver asks us for forgiveness for taking the time to recognize the holy around her, a holiness that presumably stuns her, if momentarily, with its presence. It’s not really forgiveness that is needed, I think, but understanding. For surely many of us have been in a similar circumstance, where the sacred overwhelms us and leaves us immobile for some period of time. Mary Oliver may not be as terrified by the sacred, as Rilke appears to be, but like so many of us Oliver approaches the sacred through finding it in the familiar. She teaches us to respond to the sacred by taking notice of it, even if we do not bow. It’s not a bad lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not a bad lesson at all, Will. Not bad at all. Thank you dearly for it. Oh wait, you were talking about Mary Oliver though, my mistake.
      I love how you compare (contrast) Oliver and Rilke. It’s company I’m sure she would be honored to keep. “Letters to a Young Poet” holds many of my favorite sentiments.

      Maybe we could do an Angel-themed week sometime? I’ll start thinking of some of my favorites; feel free to email me a few of yours if time allows this month.

      From Mary’s poem, “Sometimes”:

      Instructions for living a life:

      Pay attention.
      Be astonished.
      Tell about it.


Comments are closed.