Welcome to the silly, comforting poem.
It is not the sunrise,
which is a red rinse,
which is flaring all over the eastern sky;
it is not the rain falling out of the purse of God;
it is not the blue helmet of the sky afterward,
or the trees, or the beetle burrowing into the earth;
it is not the mockingbird who, in his own cadence,
will go on sizzling and clapping
from the branches of the catalpa that are thick with blossoms,
that are billowing and shining,
that are shaking in the wind.
You still recall, sometimes, the old barn on your great-grandfather’s farm, a place you visited once, and went into, all alone, while the grownups sat and talked in the house.
It was empty, or almost. Wisps of hay covered the floor, and some wasps sang at the windows, and maybe there was a strange fluttering bird high above, disturbed, hoo-ing a little and staring down from a messy ledge with wild, binocular eyes.
Mostly, though, it smelled of milk, and the patience of animals; the give-offs of the body were still in the air, a vague ammonia, not unpleasant.
Mostly, though, it was restful and secret, the roof high up and arched, the boards unpainted and plain.
You could have stayed there forever, a small child in a corner, on the last raft of hay, dazzled by so much space that seemed empty, but wasn’t.
Then–you still remember–you felt the rap of hunger–it was noon–and you turned from that twilight dream and hurried back to the house, where the table was set, where an uncle patted you on the shoulder for welcome, and there was your place at the table.
There is a graveyard where everything I am talking about is,
I stood there once, on the green grass, scattering flowers.
Nothing is so delicate or so finely hinged as the wings
of the green moth
against the lantern
against its heat
against the beak of the crow
in the early morning.
Yet the moth has trim, and feistiness, and not a drop
Not in this world.
was the blue wisteria,
was the mossy stream out behind the house,
my mother, alas, alas,
did not always love her life,
heavier than iron it was
as she carried it in her arms, from room to room,
I bury her
in a box
in the earth
and turn away.
was a demon of frustrated dreams,
was a breaker of trust,
was a poor, thin boy with bad luck.
He followed God, there being no one else
he could talk to;
he swaggered before God, there being no one else
who would listen.
this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.
I mention them now,
I will not mention them again.
It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.
I give them–one, two, three, four–the kiss of courtesy,
of sweet thanks,
of anger, of good luck in the deep earth.
May they sleep well. May they soften.
But I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them the responsibility for my life.
Did you know that the ant has a tongue
with which to gather in all that it can
Did you know that?
The poem is not the world.
It isn’t even the first page of the world.
But the poem wants to flower, like a flower.
It knows that much.
It wants to open itself,
like the door of a little temple,
so that you might step inside and be cooled and refreshed,
and less yourself than part of everything.
The voice of the child crying out of the mouth of the
is a misery and a disappointment.
The voice of the child howling out of the tall, bearded,
is a misery, and a terror.
Therefore, tell me:
what will engage you?
What will open the dark fields of your mind,
like a lover
at first touching?
there was no barn.
No child in the barn.
No uncle no table no kitchen.
Only a long lovely field full of bobolinks.
When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,
like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.
Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.
A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.
Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.
In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.
Live with the beetle, and the wind.
This is the dark bread of the poem.
This is the dark and nourishing bread of the poem.
“Flare” by Mary Oliver, from The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo Press, 2000).
7 thoughts on ““Flare” by Mary Oliver”
My mother died on May 7, 2020 at the age of eighty-nine. She was sweet and kind, a country girl who married a city boy. She knew about hummingbirds and chickens, hay and cows and good green earth. She planted flowers and dreams and worked nearly every day of her life. She loved her husband, her children, and her grandchildren; and, if you read this poem very carefully, you can feel her presence upon its wind.
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I am so sorry for your loss, John. I lost my mom nine years ago in March, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. She was my best friend. I wish you peace during these sad days and I hope that her presence surrounds you and comforts you.
I was chastised the other day for my poem choice on Mother’s Day. Did I not know it was May and Mother’s Day? Why was I posting an Autumn poem? I was momentarily offended because Every day is Mother’s Day to me now, and because, “if read carefully,” every poem I share has “her presence upon its wind.” But then I softened—ripened—because grief is so personal in how we carry it and also in how we share it. Not everyone will understand, and that’s okay; I almost envy them. You and I and so many others Do understand, and yes, I feel your mother’s presence upon its wind, alongside mine and others. The flowers dance in their gentle breezes and turn their heads toward their sunbeams. May we do the same.
Thank you, Christina, for your very kind thoughts. I have good days and bad days (and good moments and bad moments), but my mother gifted all of her children with strength and wisdom and the desire to do good in this world. So did our father, who is still alive.
Do you know why I read your site? Because you have excellent taste in poetry. I have a Ph.D in Renaissance and Seventeenth Century British Literature, and I have also taught every kind of American lit course there is–fiction, poetry, and drama–so I know wherof I speak. Even the best of of us will get criticized from time to time for what we say or write but, I say again, you have excellent taste in poetry. Coming to your blog every day to see what you’ve chosen for us is a deep pleasure, and I am thankful for what you do. It is not often that I share with anyone those things which are most personal to me. *Flare*, however, captures some of my mother’s spirit. Not all of it, of course; my parents were different from Oliver’s parents; but if my mother were still living and she read this poem, she would recognize herself in it.
Again, thank you for your thoughtfulness. My sisters and my father and my friends are supporting me as we mourn Mother’s passing. We are all right. She is with us, and we will go on. Take good care.
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Thank you, John, for Your very kind words. I appreciate your opening up, and I know others reading in this space will also be helped and moved by your personal sentiments. I will hold you and your family in my thoughts. Love and light, c-
What a beautiful thought…
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Wow. I was lucky. I had the barn. I had the family. I was lucky. But man, do I hear her. Beautiful poem. Thank you for sharing.
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How desperately she clung to the inherent goodness of the world, of nature. Despite a sad and traumatic childhood. Or maybe because of it. The more I read of her life, and the more I read her works, the more I realize how deep and layered her messages were. Like an iceberg. So much more than what was simply on the surface.
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