top of page

Mary Oliver’s Gift of Stumbling Stones

Last fall, our family took a morning to hike up the craggy paths of the North Georgia mountains. We knew our end: a precipice overlooking the tops of the newly bronzed and coppered trees. But there was a long path between us and that view, and it was not a level one.

We couldn’t walk in our normal, easy stride with our heads up. Our bodies would take quick, forward lurches as toes came into contact with inlaid stones. Our ankles would tangle with roots. The ground begged that we take notice of it. The rocks stubbed our toes and asked us to consider them.

Poetry is like that.

In our instant-everything world, our hearts and minds and eyes are trained to get to the end quickly. “Get to the point,” we say. “Give me 140 characters and a picture, in case I don’t have time for even your brevity.” But poems will have none of that. Poetry won’t let us breeze ahead with our heads up. Every word, laboriously gathered and sorted by the poet, is a stone to bump up against. A call to pause and consider. Lines break right in the middle of a sentence—“The nerve!” we think. “Can’t we just move along?” we huff. Our ankles get tangled up in the syntax and we have to sit and spend time unknotting. “The world is rushing by!” we cry, “I don’t have time to wonder at the mystery of it all!” And yet, I’m thinking that maybe what our world needs most right now is a little more poetry.

My husband, Andrew, has declared this to be year of poetry in the Harwell home, and among many of the musty anthologies he first carried home from the library was a selection of poems by Mary Oliver. I hadn’t even considered if she was alive or dead as I devoured her poems on my couch at night after my kids were tucked away. How bizarre, magical even, that I was reading her poem, “When Death Comes,” when she was walking through her own words and “step[ping] through the door full of curiosity, wondering; what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”

Poetry won't let us breeze ahead with our heads up. Every word, laboriously gathered and sorted by the poet, is a stone to bump up against. Elizabeth Harwell

Her poems, and others, have been nourishment for me this past month: words bumping up against the forward! onward! hum of my mind and asking me to sit when the rest of the world is imploring me to keep up the frantic pace. Oliver’s poems ask us to gawk at poppies, to think about the fields in which the rice on our plate grew, to wonder at what the bear dreams. She bids that we do the hard work of standing still in the present moment to give God the great honor of seeing what He’s done.

How can we be thankful without considering? How can we worship without seeing?

When our family reached the precipice, we celebrated and smiled and yelled out the colors of the tree tops. And as we took the obligatory pictures (to be included with our captions of brevity), I thought about those roots and stones under the rolling blanket of color. I knew those paths under the tree tops; I had been knocked about by them. The branches had scratched against my jacket. The oak leaves had surprised me, slamming into my face and leaving dew drops that tickled down my nose. There was a depth of beauty in that crescendo of the view, because it was a world considered.

I had not voluntarily considered those stones and branches; they grabbed at me to do so. And I wonder if we need to let ourselves be arrested in this way by poetry. Can’t it only do us good to stumble over the words and thoughts of another? If only to give us practice in considering, if only to train our eyes (and minds and hearts) to fix themselves on something, one thing—and be amazed.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my lifeI was a bride married to amazement.I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.When it’s over, I don’t want to wonderif I have made of my life something particular, and real.I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,or full of argument.I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.—excerpt from “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver


bottom of page