Nature Is Gay, and Other Things I Learned From Mary Oliver's Poetry

Can the late lesbian poet inspire a young New Yorker to roam freely?

“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a biweekly series in which a young queer woman experiences a cultural artifact beloved by older members of the LGBTQ community, in furtherance of her own queer education. Think of it as a syllabus for Queer Culture 101.

On the eve of sitting down to write this column, I brought a tote bag full of Mary Oliver's books to Prospect Park to read poetry about the natural world in the sunshine, as God—a lesbian—intended. Because I'm a child of the internet, I recycled that joke on Twitter, kept my headphones in, and grabbed an iced coffee to accompany me on my literary journey.

Oliver first landed on my radar in the most spectacularly sad of ways: I wrote an obituary after her death at age 83 this January. She was a prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and essayist whose work spanned decades (and whose unofficial fan club includes high-profile members like Hillary Clinton, Maria Shriver, and Ava DuVernay.)

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

LONG BEACH, CA - OCTOBER 26: California first lady Maria Shriver (R) introduces Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poet Mary Oliver during her annual Women's Conference 2010 on October 26, 2010 at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California. Attendees to the conference include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and candidates for California Governor Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

From left: Mary Oliver and Maria Shriver at Shriver's annual Women's Conference in 2010.

She was also openly gay and lived in Provincetown, Mass., with her partner of more than 40 years, Molly Malone Cook, until Cook's death in 2005.

A quick glance at any of her many poetry books reveals her true passion: environmentalism. Oliver's use of motifs from the natural world—flora, fauna, planets, you name it—is beautiful in its simplicity. Her writing is flowery in the literal sense, but not figuratively. The titles of her most popular poems, including "Wild Geese" and "The Swan," reflect this approach to language. She deftly makes meaning out of images we all know and recognize, finds depth in simple, tangible things we can see with our own eyes. In 2009's Evidence, the poem "Prince Buzzard" uses the image of a carrion bird to illustrate the cyclical nature of life and the inevitability of death ("...for the dark work / that was yours / which wasn't to be done easily or quickly / but thoroughly").

Even when Oliver writes about God or the Divine, she rarely reads as preachy or absolutist. As writer Ruth Franklin puts it for The New Yorker, "With a few exceptions, Oliver’s poems don’t end in thunderbolts. Theirs is a gentler form of moral direction."

While I find this a remarkably difficult balance to strike, especially in poetry, where beautiful words and brevity too often masquerade as profoundness, Oliver's ingenuity hasn't always been recognized. In fact, she's long been overlooked.

As Rachel Syme notes in a tribute piece for The New Yorker, Oliver was dragged throughout her lifetime by critics, who called her work overly simplistic: "Oliver’s critics sneered, perhaps with a subconscious (or even purposeful) misogyny, at work that deals primarily with interior revelations and small, daily concerns and observances, like the sound of a lover whistling in another room, or the way kissing feels."

Since Oliver was a woman writing in the literary and poetry worlds, two spaces traditionally relegated to male writers, that line of criticism is not surprising to me. Doubly so for a lesbian writer, and triply so for a lesbian writer whose work highlights the beauty, intrigue, and complexity of the natural world. Flowers and swans are "just #GirlyThings," right?

Of course, the fact that poetry has long been a pillar of lesbian culture is conveniently being ignored here. Sappho—yes, that Sappho, whose name and geographic location inspired the terms "sapphic" and "lesbian"—was a poetess in the days of ancient Greece. The tradition continues today, albeit in different forms. We all know them: poetry slams, open mic nights at local cafes, spoken word YouTube channels, self-published zines bursting with angsty queer feels. In fact, some of America's most revered contemporary poets, including Ocean Vuong (Night Sky With Exit Wounds) and Eileen Myles (Evolution, Chelsea Girls) identify under the LGBTQ umbrella.

Writing Oliver off as an unsophisticated poet is reductive of her talents (and totally sexist). It also ignores the heaviness—talk of life and death, oppression and destruction, sex and birth—that permeates her writing. In a touching memorial piece for Literary Hub, writer Jeanna Kadlec speaks to Oliver's use of the poetic form to comment on humanity's destruction of the natural world.

That destruction extends to mistreatment within our species, too. Contemporary society oppresses queer people and devastates the world's plentiful natural resources (rain forests, coral reefs, oceans, endangered animals) simultaneously. The issues differ, and the modes of oppression aren't neatly comparable, but the message is the same: The way you are naturally, in your raw, unadulterated form, isn't good or valuable enough.

Oliver encourages us to find our raison d'être in things that seem trivial. We're good enough, valuable enough, whether or not society agrees. Look around, her poetry tells us, in the commanding-but-melodic voice of a true Lesbian Elder™, and relish in what you see, what you are.

Sure, most of us can't go totally off-the-grid and pull a "Lady Who Lives in the Woods." But we owe it to ourselves to observe and appreciate what surrounds us, what grounds us. After all, what's the point of living if we can't take a breather to experience the world in which we live?

Her words even got this young, urban Brooklynite to take out her Airpods and go for a walk alone in 2019.

Oliver should have the last word. Here's an excerpt from "To Begin With, the Sweet Grass":

What I loved in the beginning, I think, was mostly myself.

Never mind that I had to, since somebody had to.

That was many years ago.

Since then I have gone out from my confinements,

though with difficulty...

And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.

I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.

I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned,

I have become younger.

And what do I risk, to tell you this, which is all I know?

Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.

Most of Oliver's work is still in print and available wherever books are sold. I recommend starting with Evidence, New and Selected Poems: Volume I, and Swan.

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