MARY OLIVER’s poems will help you enter the wilderness in your head

Sexy overthinker Kester Ratcliff on why he adores the beloved late American writer.

Words by Kester Ratcliff, main picture by Molly Malone, poem by Mary Oliver

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds.

I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed, nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths among the branches of the perfect trees.

All night I heard the small kingdoms breathing around me, the insects and the birds who do their work in the darkness.

All night I rose and fell as if in water, grappling with a luminous doom.

By morning I had vanished at least a dozen times into something better.

– Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver (right) and her partner, photographer Molly Malone

My favorite poet is a rather unsophisticated one, in terms of the standards of literary snobs. Mary Oliver doesn’t do cultured allusions to classical authors that you have to study for years to get, nor rigid prosody. She just does radical astonishment or mindfulness in daily life, interspersed with moments of mentally leaving the world and going into the wilderness (the universal of what is outside of all human social constructions) wherever, whenever.

When you are there for a while, you remember yourself more clearly.

I’m learning how to do it more consciously and freely. Before, it used to happen to me by accident sometimes, or maybe because I lived in the wilderness some years before.

You have to want to first, and then it develops gradually”

I think becoming conscious of the wilderness is an act of grace, beyond my intention. And that’s why I love her poems. I also love Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel‘s poems but he’s a private source of joy. Because whenever I show other people his poems they mostly just see the word ‘God’ and put it in the box labeled ‘religious’, stop thinking right there. And I feel like screaming “No, category ‘life’! Not just category ‘religious’!”

Poetry works in a special way to get people out of the habit of unconscious reactive categorical thinking, but you have to want to first, and then it develops gradually.

I have a strong hunch I’m going to love Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings too. Some of his verses are inscribed on stones along the Kungsleden trail in northern Sweden. You’ll pass one every day when you walk the route.

I actually used to write spontaneous poems, years ago, secretly in my Google Drive. When I’ve become fluent enough in mentally entering the wilderness anywhere, anytime, I think I’ll be ready to write.

Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. She lived with her partner, photographer Molly Cook (1925 – 2005), in Provincetown, Massachusetts, USA. The book Our World is a compilation of Molly’s photo’s accompanied by Mary’s poetry and writing. Kester’s favorite is Wild Geese.

Kester is a future poet, sex worker, wilderness lover, and dog enthusiast (ask nicely and he might let you in) living in Amsterdam