“Breakage” by Mary Oliver

I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

from Why I Wake Early: New Poems by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press, 2005.

8 thoughts on ““Breakage” by Mary Oliver

    1. Yes, you’ve captured her essence well I think. I’ve also noticed some ambiguous darkness in many of her pieces—mainly her early and her late works—and when I recently stumbled upon an interview she did with Maria Shriver (in 2011?) so much of that darkness became clear. Oliver revealed she’d been sexually abused as a young child; it was the first time she’d said it aloud, she said. My heart just broke for her. Then eight years later, we lost her.

      “Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.”

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  1. Excellent. There’s a prose passage of similar import in Anthony Doerr’s novel, *All the Light We Cannot See* from five years ago. The novel won a well-deserved Pulitzer, and you’ll recognize the passage when you see it.

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    1. I’ve had this book saved to read after my friend Mary Pierce highly recommended it. But I just know it’s going to make me cry, so I’ve kept delaying.

      You’ve piqued my curiosity though, John.

      I’ve debated rereading The Game of Thrones series after I finish Mary Oliver’s “Upstream” again, but now I may opt for Doerr’s. Thank you! I will definitely look out for the passage at which you hint.


      1. It would take some time to reread all of the *Game of Thrones* books, good as they are, By coincidence, I am rewatching the GOT television series–not as good as the books, but still well done. Perhaps by the time I’m done, Martin will have finished writing the final two books 🙂 *All The Light We Cannot See* took Doerr ten years to write, and it has some fine prose throughout. It would be a pleasure to know what you think of it after you’ve read it. My current read is Suetonius’s *Lives of the Caesars,* in Graves’s translation and an older translation by a man named Church . I finished the chapter on Nero last night. Not quite as bloody, perhaps, as the Red Wedding, but close enough! Read both Martin & Doerr, by all means. Yes, Doerr will make you cry, so have tissues at the ready; but Martin is the only author who has ever made me SCREAM while I was reading: at the death of Oberyn Martell in his duel with the Mountain. I am sure you remember it. Take good care. Apologies for the delay in replying to you,


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