On the Overlooked Eroticism of Mary Oliver
Poetry as Affirmation of Queer Desire
Mary Oliver is often called a nature poet, but she might more accurately be described as a poet of attention. In this, one specific aspect of her work is often overlooked: her eroticism. Oliver wrote about nature, yes, but she also wrote about fucking, and loving, and what it was like to love and learn one woman for nearly half a century.
Graduate school was how I was first exposed to Mary Oliver—not through the classes I took, but through my fellow graduate students who introduced me to her poetry. Her work would come to have deep meaning for me as I shucked off fundamentalist Christianity and a straight marriage and came out as a lesbian, much to the surprise of my family back in the rural Midwest.
Mary Oliver was also a lesbian from the rural Midwest. She was sexually abused by her father; by all accounts, she left home as a young woman and never looked back. By the late 1950s, she was living in New York, and in 1964, she moved in with her partner Molly Malone Cook in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they would live together for the next 40 years until Cook’s death in 2005. Of meeting Cook, Oliver famously wrote, I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.
For someone like me, Mary Oliver’s story looked like one thing: hope. It was a beacon that you could, indeed, leave the place where bad things happened to you and make a new life, where other bad things would likely happen, but where you might also meet a woman whose hand you liked to hold (“A Voice From I Don’t Know Where”).
There is a consistent affirmation in Oliver’s poetry that we are worthy of our lover’s time, effort, gratitude. This is the queer erotic: the validation of our bodies as worthy of attention, of desire, of sex. In “The Gardens,” the speaker of the poem is lying her lover down in the forest. Her lover’s two legs tremble / and open / into the dark country / I keep dreaming of. This is desire, laid bare, naked and raw. Animal. This is cunt, the source of desire: the dark country / I keep dreaming of. There is want; there is also consent: I ask / over and over / for your whereabouts, trekking / wherever you take me. This seems an eloquent way of saying, I am checking in, how is this, and how does this feel, is this good?, and here? would you like it…?There is a consistent affirmation in Oliver’s poetry that we are worthy of our lover’s time, effort, gratitude. This is the queer erotic: the validation of our bodies as worthy of attention, of desire, of sex.
Oliver wrote often of her lover’s hands—reaching, touching. How / shall I touch you / unless it is / everywhere? Hands, of course, are one of queer women’s more overlooked sexual organs. Here, there is the impossibility of hands being everywhere at once, married to impossibly large desire:
the answering, the rousing
great run toward the interior,
the unseen, the unknowable
There is orgasm (mutual? Multiple?). There is, at last, the finding of the center: of two women coming together, naked on the forest bed.
This is not the Mary Oliver memorialized by the masses.
With accessibility to the masses comes a certain desexualizing and less focus on her lesbianism. Of course, Oliver is a lesbian poet who rarely granted interviews, did not often discuss her personal life publicly, and didn’t write as much about love or relationships as her early contemporaries like Adrienne Rich or Audre Lorde. Oliver’s sexuality—and the sexuality of her work—is easy to elide even when the conceit of bodies and desire is barely disguised within natural metaphor: On a cot by an open window / I lie like land used up, while spring unfolds (“No Voyage,” 1963) or I know someone who kisses the way / a flower opens, but more rapidly (“I Know Someone,” 2010). Oliver figures her own body as land used up—does she mean harvested of desire? She knows someone whose kisses open to her as a flower blooms—flowers, of course, also being metaphors for vulvas (Georgia O’Keeffe, a purportedly queer woman who worked in the metaphor of nature, comes to mind). What part of the body, precisely, is she kissing or allowing to be kissed? We are the lucky ones, that poem ends. The erotic is obvious to those with ears to hear and eyes to see.“Wild Geese,” and so many other poems, are about allowing ourselves the permission to be fully present in our bodies and their incumbent desires.
Oliver’s eroticism is more visible to the queer reader, who knows that queerness isn’t just about queer sex: it is a fundamentally individual way of looking at the world. To queer is to break down—to destroy—the structures that would limit or bar or imprison us, and to rethink or even replace them.
Take “Wild Geese,” perhaps her most beloved poem. “Wild Geese” is distinctly, uniquely queer. In the poem, the speaker gives the reader permission to inhabit their body: to be present in it, to know and own what they want without shame. Harder to do than it sounds, as any queer can tell you. Brandon Taylor has written about how this poem speaks to validating the reader’s worthiness. For me, someone who grew up in the evangelical church, the experience of reading “Wild Geese” has often been about receiving permission to desire within my own body: I do not have to be good; I do not have to repent.
I sit in my bedroom, reading on a quiet Sunday morning, or stand on the train during my rush hour commute, and see before me one of my foremothers—a lesbian elder—assuring me,
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves
“Wild Geese,” and so many other poems, are about allowing ourselves the permission to be fully present in our bodies and their incumbent desires. Joy is not made to be a crumb (“Don’t Hesitate”). This world, still, would diminish and constrain and limit and imprison and even kill gay and lesbian and trans and bisexual and queer people, simply for occupying our bodies in a way as honest as the otters and birds that Oliver observed on her walks through the woods and beaches of Provincetown. Don’t be afraid of its plenty, she says of love. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
When it comes to love and desire and, really, anything you want, don’t hesitate. For me, Oliver’s poetry has built bridges to a language for desire I didn’t know I was missing. I’ve given books of her poetry to lovers, have read it to them in bed before once again taking up my own search for the dark country, the unknowable center.
When Oliver died, I didn’t reach for her work on death, or even for my own personal favorite poem of hers, “Landscape.” No. She died, and I instinctively reached for her most erotic work, for the words she wrote about women. Teach me, again, how to do this, I asked, as she slipped from this world to the next. How do I bear witness to one woman’s body and spirit for an entire lifetime? Am I enough? Am I doing it right?
These are the questions I bring, not to a priest, but to Mary Oliver: lesbian elder, generous teacher, poet. I come and sit at her feet, and ask my big, knotty questions. Time and again, she answers. She always answers.