Judy Kvinsland Writes of Finding Mary Oliver’s Poem Just When She Needed It
Thank you, Judy Kvinsland, for reminding us of just how important poetry is when we are grieving. The healing it offers deep into our experience is incomparable. And in times of need, it is miraculous that poetry reaches out to us as much as we reach out to it.
Serendipity: “Poem for my Father’s Ghost” by Mary Oliver
I have not told many, if any, about my recent discovery of a poem by Mary Oliver, one that came to me at a time when comfort was sorely needed. I was in Mendocino, California, nestled above the Pacific Ocean in 2020, four days before Thanksgiving, enjoying morning coffee with my family, when I realized,
“Today, November 22, is the date that Grandpa died. He’s been gone for twelve years now, but I still miss him so much.”
Both my daughter and granddaughter got up from their couch and hugged me, even though pandemic rules did not permit such kindness, but we had all quarantined for two weeks before arrival and still wore masks while indoors, so we gave in to our emotions.
I also recalled that the news of his sudden death, half a day’s drive away in Southern California, had arrived while I had lived there, nearby them, in a house that I could see from my daughter’s living room. Late November sun shown warmly on the property, surrounded by towering Redwoods. Even the once-luxurious garden we had created and left behind, was still somewhat intact. We talked fondly of my father and the comfort I felt living there, surrounded by family as I had grieved him so deeply.
My daughter wondered, “Mom, do you want to go down and sit in your garden for a while today?” The new neighbors won’t mind. I’ll go with you, if you want.”
“Oh, no, that might be too much for me today, but thank you. Let’s get to work on Thanksgiving and raise a glass to Grandpa later at dinner.” I replied, not surprised by her kind generosity, or by my own tendency to be overwhelmed by sadness on landmark days. While society provided no set rules for grieving, even I had begun to worry about myself, if ever I might ever find some relief, a lessening of my anguish, after so many years.
I still longed to talk to my father one more time. I longed to tell him about my grandchildren, his great-grandchildren. I longed to hear his usual and customary, words of comfort, especially now, during a global pandemic,
“Remember this, the sun will come up tomorrow. Everything will be okay.”
Ever mindful of my shaky, emotional state, my daughter lingered over her coffee, then remembered that she had recently bought me a few books of poetry at a used book sale. She disappeared to search for them, reappeared, and dropped two books in my lap; one, a familiar collection by Robert Frost, and the other, unknown to me, Twelve Moons by Mary Oliver. Without any thought, I picked up Oliver, cracked her collection open to its middle, and there on page forty-two, I stared at the title, “Poem for my Father’s Ghost,” actually, speechless for a moment. Amazed and astonished, I began to read the poem aloud, increasingly comforted by specific images used by the poet that sunk into my being, that mirrored my own father’s activities, and symbolically, honored his life. I could see and take comfort in how full his life had been, as I was swept away by Oliver’s images. I could see how the poet acknowledged how a life similar to my father’s, began to ebb, and ultimately how Mary Oliver, had been able, so early in her career, to bestow such vivid and visual grace upon life’s ending:
Now is my father
A traveler, like all the bold men
He talked of, endlessly
And with boundless admiration,
over the supper table,
Or gazing up from his white pillow—
Book on his lap, always, until
Even that grew too heavy to hold.
Now is my father free of all binding fevers.
Now is my father
Traveling where there is no road.
Finally, he could not lift a hand
To cover his eyes.
Now he climbs to the eye of the river,
He strides through the Dakotas,
He disappears into the mountains. And though he looks
Cold and hungry as any man
At the end of a questing season,
He is one of them now:
He cannot be stopped.
Now is my father
Walking the wind,
Sniffing the deep Pacific
That begins at the end of the world.
Vanished from us utterly,
Now is my father circling the deepest forest—
Then turning in to the last red campfire burning
In the final hills,
Where chieftains, warriors, and heroes
Rise and make him welcome,
Recognizing, under the shambles of his body,
A brother who has walked his thousand miles.
I am grateful for the two beloved witnesses who wept with me that morning as I read and reread the precious find. Who would believe the serendipity of this moment, if told?