Mary Oliver's Cancer Poem

Monday, February 16, 2015 - 5:11am

Mary Oliver's Cancer Poem

"The end of life has its own nature also worth our attention."
—Mary Oliver

About an hour in to our interview with Mary Oliver, the poet discusses what she calls "the cancer visit." In 2012 she was diagnosed with lung cancer and said that death had "left his calling card." She was treated and was given "a clean bill of health."

In her collection Blue Horses, "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac" is a four-part poem that recalls the shadowy underworld of loss and survival. And yet, grief is coupled with a hopefulness. The poem is petitionary, asking of us to make what we can of the time we have left.

The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac
by Mary Oliver

Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles—
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.

The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river—
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn't remember
the sun rising, if I couldn't
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn't
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you're in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it's happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn't
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of

For those of you who prefer the organic reading of a conversation, below you can hear the poems as they were read in the interview:

"The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac" from Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, published by The Penguin Press, New York, Copyright © 2014 by Mary Oliver, reprinted by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency.

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Mariah Helgeson

is a digital editor at On Being. She earned a degree in International Affairs with concentrations in the Middle East and Conflict Resolution from George Washington University. She grew up in Minnesota and was a program associate at the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. When she’s not submerged in a good book she might be found laughing with her teenage sisters or playing chamber music.

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Words are like a thousand pictures.

I appreciate the prodding of this poem, the knife, the silent hunter, cutting against all the beauty that Oliver evokes so stunningly. Listen up! Don't waste the time you have! Let the darkness prod you, if that's what it takes. Then maybe you too will see time running backward, the dead flowers from the bush burning in the heat reattached to the shrubs, blue and glimmering in the morning dew. Krista Tippett, I loved your interview: you, knowledgeable, gently prodding, intuit the right moments, and Mary, so strong and open, shows a touching fragility in her openness. Brilliant work, both of you.

I could hold on to the phrase about the shrub losing the blue flowers, and the
Next day the flowers were back on the shrub.That is how we are in denial about
Anything we want to run away from, or not embrace as being a part of us. When we are willing to run the race , with what we have, and accept it it is becomes part
Of who we ar.that is howI felt when I had cancer. So, I can claim this.

My family was tired from 3 days of my Mom's death watch. She was old, with dementia at a care center. In a lucid moment she asked she not die alone. So they left me alone with her that last nite. The Anglican Priest who gave her last rites told us to feel closely at this transition. It is where being and the beyond are very close. As I dozed on the chair I could hear her breathing, determined and steady. At around 2am I felt a warm,soft feeling under my chin. I thought this must be a childhood memory of when my Mom first held a kitten. I later learned that after losing a child at 4 days old a new mother brought her newborn in for Mom to hold. As the morning dawned I got up to give her morphine and wipe her lips and felt as if I were looking thru the eyes of my long dead father, seeing her in days first light as he went off to do rounds at Med school. Looking with so much love at the women he just married. Her breathing got more sporatic, then would stop and start up again, I called my siblings and told them the end is very near. My sister and nieces came in the room a few minutes before her breath stopped. The rest of the family came and all hugged her. Two years later I look back at that nite as the most beautiful.

Thank you for that beautiful death story, family story. Having seen my elderly father through his death, I can relate to all you say. It was also a loving part of life.

Having been in a little bit of a funk, hearing Mary Oliver read this poem left me audibly weeping. I have loved her poetry for years, and it always peers deeply into my soul. This one, even more so. Thank you Mary for being you and for knowing me.

Just wanted to let you know that the post you've made here is a bit wrong. You had stated that "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac" is from Mary Oliver's "Dream Work" (and linked to the Amazon page!) I bought the book for my mother, who is currently undergoing treatment for Cancer, and unfortunately it FINALLY came in the mail only for me to realize that it doesn't actually contain "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac" at all. May want to update that so that other listeners trying to track down Mary's work aren't disappointed :)

Mariah Helgeson's picture

Hey Kendra,
Thank you for catching that! I'm so sorry about the mix-up. You are absolutely correct that "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac" is from Blue Horses not Dream Work. I do hope you found the correct book, and I've made the correction above.
Joy & Gratitude,

I was walking my wonderful Greyhound on a trail around a lake near me this morning, marvelling at the beautiful colors of the changing leaves, taking in the peeks of warm sun through the treetops, and watching the swans glide along the lake. During this walk I listened to Krista's interview of Mary Oliver - one of my very favorite poets of all time. I actually filled up with tears listening to her read some of her works - so incredibly moving! Thank you so much Mary for putting so much of this beauty into words that move so deeply! And - thank you, Krista, for your amazing show each week!

Although I came to this poem after reading only the first part, I knew I wanted to read more. As a recent widow and also one even older than Mary, it is the 2nd and 4th parts in this remarkable poem that I read again and again. It is those questions and "that fiercely wanting...just a little more of life."

I came to poetry late in my life -- late, as it turns out, being in my fifties. I'm now 62 with a terminal cancer. This poem took me by surprise as I was following up reading Mary Oliver after encountering another compelling poem of hers in a UU service a few years ago, thinking that poem probably was in Blue Horses (it isn't).

The first line captures my feeling exactly following the phone call from the doctor who conveyed my diagnosis. Of course: there is no particular reason to consider yourself exempt from a brain tumor; but I'll bet you do, as did I, unwittingly. The imagery of the stealth of the hunter and the fox are as perfect as words get to convey this truth.

To me each part of this poem stands firmly on its own as great art. The question in Part 2, just as unsurprisingly as Part 1, is the second place I went after initially grasping the reality of my mortality. I'm a little more optimistic than to worry about missing anything on the "next day" or later; it is the grief of others that pains me the most. Fortunately, this too shall pass for each in her or his own time.

The entreaty of Part 3 is indeed spoken from the fortunate platform of Mary's many unwasted years. I hope and believe this was for her partner before her death; and if that is the case, what a gift to her, as well as to every survivor of a loved one.

But it is Part 4 that reveals the spirit and the magic of this great writer. No Whitman and no Thoreau could speak to me of the wonder of life in such a personal way. Like a previous commenter, I feel I can claim this poem on many levels.

Thank you, Billy Collins, for waking me up to poetry. Better late than never for this "hired knife." Thank you, Mary Oliver, for your skill and art that gives you the power to communicate on such a spiritual level. And thank you, Krista Tippet, and Mariah Helgeson, for the keen insight that enables you to bring this art to us.

Ed Mangiafico, Jr.