• How Mary Oliver Helped Me to Breathe Again

    Brandon Taylor on the Gift That is "Wild Geese"

    Yesterday, I was walking along the river, chatting with a friend on the phone, when overhead a flock of geese soared by. It’s a common moment here in Iowa, to be standing somewhere, living one’s life, only to have it interrupted by the sudden intrusion of nature in the form of geese honking. I’ve been in workshop (for an MFA), staring out the window, and have seen the dark formations drifting by the tips of the trees. We are always in the current of nature.

    Yesterday, I stood on the bridge as the geese fell into and out of formation, not so much a V as a kind of undulating, writhing line. My friend said, “Are those birds? I can hear them! They must be close!” And I said, “They are right over me! Right over!” They were not close enough to touch, but they were close enough that I could see them individually. I could see the gray feathers of their bellies, and their long, slender necks. I could see them pumping their wings, and I could even see some of the feathers shifting in turbulence. Below, on the cold, gray river, their reflections were glossy and dark. I stood there listening to them, thinking of course of “Wild Geese,” and it made me smile the way it always does when I see the geese out on their runs. Who could fail to marvel at the perfect miracle of flight.

    “God,” my friend said. “There are so many of them.”

    It was true. It felt like it went on a for a long time, but it was only about a minute, if that. And then the moment was over, and the geese were gone.


    I first read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” on Twitter, which explains something of why her work is both beloved and dismissed. It’s a boring discussion: I enjoyed this, but is it art? I won’t stoop to take the bait of it here. “Wild Geese” is one of those telegraphic poems that announces its meaning without flourish from the very outset: You do not have to be good.

    I feel worthy of being in the world when I think of “Wild Geese.” I feel that the world has use for me.

    It’s a poem of arresting lucidity and wisdom. It would be stupid to call it simple in that way that suggests that simplicity is a moral good or an aesthetically preferable state. But I also won’t say that it is complex, as though one needs to apologize for the spare nonpyrotechnics of the piece. Instead, I’ll say simply that “Wild Geese” is a poem that made me want to breathe again.

    For a long time, I felt unworthy of the world. For great periods of my life, I still feel unworthy of the world. This is not an uncommon state. Worthiness is the chief subject of the poem, to me. The speaker, in an act of breathtaking generosity, offers the reader, no matter how lowly or afield they have found themselves, an opportunity to reenter the world. There is an entreaty to follow the natural grain of one’s character, to heed one’s desire. There is no need to repent, to apologize, to make amends for how one is. The poem elevates the natural world above the world of man and its spines. The source of all of this acceptance and love is in the beauty of the world as it is. The rain. The geese in their flight. And at the end, one is offered a place, not in the world of people, but in the kingdom of things, a haunting reminder of the scope and presence of nature.

    I feel worthy of being in the world when I think of “Wild Geese.” I feel that the world has use for me, that there is a place for me in the world that is vaster and greater and eternal. I am grateful for Mary Oliver’s wisdom, her kindness, and her generosity. I’m grateful for her clarity and precision. I’m grateful for this single, well-made thing. She means a great deal to many people. And I’m not ashamed to say that her poem made the world more beautiful and more tolerable. I am grateful for the quiet moments of desperation which gave way to such serene contentment in “Wild Geese.” For its subtle grace. It’s a particularly fitting tribute, I guess, gratitude for Mary Oliver because Mary Oliver wrote with such immense gratitude—even for darkness, for pain, for disappointment.

    We fear sentiment, I think, because it undresses us. But “Wild Geese” is one of those poems that strides unabashedly into sentiment, into feeling. I think its gentleness in the face of its material is what makes some people titter about its “message.” About its “simplicity.” People call it a self-help poem. They are derisive. They reduce the poem. They are unkind. Even I engage in a little “Wild Geese” apologia when I am with friends who know more and better about poetry. But in my heart, I still think of “Wild Geese.” I still return to it in moments when it feels impossible to stay in the world.

    In my lowest moments, I remind myself that I do not have to be good.

    What a gift she has given us.

    Brandon Taylor
    Brandon Taylor
    Brandon Taylor is the author of the novel Real Life, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His work has appeared in Guernica, American Short Fiction, Gulf Coast, Buzzfeed Reader, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gay Mag, The New Yorker online, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. He is a staff writer at Lit Hub. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow.

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