The notion of attention: In memory of Mary Oliver

To celebrate the life of Mary Oliver, who died a week ago, I present a found poem, taken from the Brain Pickings blog, on Our World, the book Oliver wrote accompanying text to her partner Molly Malone Cook’s photographs (Beacon Press, 2008).


It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings,
that I emphasize
the notion
of attention.

This began simply
enough: to see
that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from
the way the swallow
plays in the golden air
of summer.

It was my pleasure to notice such things,
it was a good first step.
But later, watching M.
when she was taking photographs,
and watching her
in the darkroom,
and no less watching the intensity
and openness
with which she dealt with friends,
and strangers too,
taught me what real attention
is about.

Attention without feeling,
I began to learn,
is only a report.
An openness — an empathy —
was necessary
if the attention was to matter.
Such openness and empathy
M. had in abundance,
and gave away freely…

I was in my late twenties and early thirties,
and well filled
with a sense of my own thoughts,
my own presence.
I was eager
to address the world of words —
to address the world with words.

Then M. instilled in me
this deeper level
of looking and working,
of seeing through
the heavenly visibles
to the heavenly invisibles.

I think of this always
when I look at her photographs,
the images of vitality, hopefulness, endurance, kindness, vulnerability…
We each had our separate natures;
yet our ideas, our influences upon each other
became a rich and abiding confluence.


I don’t think I was wrong
to be in the world I was in,
it was my salvation
from my own darkness.
Nor have I ever abandoned it —
those early signs
that so surely lead toward epiphanies.

And yet,
and yet,
she wanted me to enter more fully
into the human world also, and to embrace it,
as I believe I have.
And what a gift [that she] never expressed impatience
with my reports of the natural world,
the blue and green happiness
I found there.

Our love was so tight.


Mary Oliver (1935-2019)


  1. Thank you for this one, Anthony. I follow Brain Pickings and yet somehow missed this. I do believe that Mary brought with her a deep empathy for the natural world she so easily inhabited, that it wasn’t simply attention. Still, I hear in this poem how vital Molly was in making the human world safer for Mary. I’m thrilled for both of them to have found one another.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for bringing attention to this particular poem. It is such an acknowledgement of her remarkable partnership with Molly and their ‘tight’ yet spacious love. Her words moved me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you very much for this. I asked for, and was given, a selection of Mary Oliver’s poetry for Christmas. Now one of my favourite modern poets. This message about paying (real) attention is so important, and not easy to achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

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