Ms. Muse: Mary Oliver’s Escape

feature image via Charlotte Olivia on the official Mary Oliver Facebook page.

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“I don’t like buildings,” she said matter-of-factly to Krista Tippett in a rare 2015 interview.

As a girl, Mary Oliver often wandered alone in the woods with a copy of Whitman’s poetry in her backpack, a small notebook and a pencil. Of her habit, she said: “I think it saved my life. To this day, I don’t care for the enclosure of buildings.”

Photo: Vivian Felten

Oliver’s repetition of the word “buildings,” such a clunky noun, might seem an awkward generalization coming from this great American poet, our bestselling poet, a woman who made a life of selecting words with care and precision.

And who doesn’t like “buildings” categorically? On average, Americans spend 93 percent of their lives passing from one building to another, day after day, decade after decade. Here is a woman who, throughout her adult life, usually woke around 5 a.m. and spent entire mornings “scribbling” on hours-long walks. Is this partly because she never felt fully comfortable indoors—not even her own home?

In 2011, Oliver told Maria Shriver in an interview that her father had sexually assaulted her as a child. With Tippett, she spoke briefly of her “very bad childhood” and the “very dark and broken house” into which she was born. In her poem “Rage,” she wrote what she described as “perfect biography, unfortunately—or autobiography.”

She added: “I couldn’t handle that material except in the three or four poems that I’ve done—just couldn’t.”

The narrator speaks of a father:

stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body,
leaving your bitter taste.
And forever those nights snarl
the delicate machinery of the days.
When the child’s mother smiles
you see on her cheekbones
a truth you will never confess;
and you see how the child grows–
timidly, crouching in corners.

The speaker’s reference to an unconfessed truth foreshadows a damning end: “in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, / and dreams do not lie.”

“Yeah, well, he never got any love out of me—or deserved it,” Oliver says of her father when Tippet inquires further. “But mostly what makes you angry is the loss of the years of your life, because it does leave damage. But there you are. You do what you can do.”

The image of “crouching in corners” suggests bent, elbow-like corners of rooms holding a huddled human figure. Oliver’s words echo in my head: “To this day, I don’t care for the enclosure of buildings.” The word “enclosure” means “to close in,” “to surround,” “to fence off for individual use,” “to hold in” and “confine.”

This claustrophobic take on “buildings” reminds me of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s take on doors. I recall the research psychologist saying she had a second front door. Who has a second front door installed in their home?

In her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Blasey Ford remembered a counseling session with her husband. “In explaining why I wanted to have a second front door,” she said, “I described the assault in detail.”

I envision the narrow stairwell and the upstairs bedroom in which she recalls a young, drunk Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her in front of his male friend. Then only 15, she escaped and locked herself in a bathroom.

What happened within Ford in that small room? She knew she was still not safe, that she had to exit. She had to go down the stairwell on which she’d just heard Kavanaugh and his friend drunkenly bumping against the walls like ping pong balls. She heard their voices combine with others downstairs. She knew she had to pass them to get out the front door—the only front door.

Ford managed to leave that house quickly—and she has never stopped making sure she can leave, making sure there’s a second exit strategy.

Trauma affected both of these women to such a degree they changed their daily habits and/or environment to accommodate their suffering. For a young Oliver, the scene of the crime was “home,” and so the natural world became her escape. She left her father’s house the day after her high school graduation and spent the rest of her life leaving by wandering and writing about the woods, ponds, fields, estuaries, harbors and beaches into which she disappeared.

“And I escaped it, barely, with years of trouble. But I did find the entire world in looking for something,” she goes on to say. “I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.” Exiling herself from the man-made world, to whatever degree she could, Oliver’s daily ritual defined both her life and work.

Photo: Vivian Felten

As a young woman first reading Oliver, I loved the meditative, prayer-like power of her voice. But I was a city girl raised on Watergate and Vietnam, and wondered why Oliver seemed to ignore more urgent subjects like injustice, oppression and war. She wasn’t known for addressing racism, sexism or classism; nor did she focus much on environmental issues, a paradox I couldn’t figure out. The challenges of being gay and being out never seemed to make it into her poems. She often seemed to me a famous white woman living a rarified life, spending long mornings strolling and dreaming. Did she hire a housekeeper, I wondered? I tried to picture Oliver and her life partner, Mollie, vacuuming, much less scrubbing floors.

Sure, Oliver may have read Rumi every day, but what did she know of the 21st century? Her poems seemed like dispatches from paradise. I remember reading Oliver, loving Oliver, but wishing she’d walk around a major city, find a massive parking lot and write about the beauty of the world from that perspective. Write about people’s faces, graffiti, gleaming metal, litter, trees pushing up concrete—and buildings.

Mary Oliver seemed a stranger to the world I knew, but I learned to accept all she offered instead of asking her to speak a language foreign to her. I entered her poems and took what I could get. And they never stopped giving.

I also learned that before Oliver became one of America’s bestselling poets, she’d chosen a minimal life so that writing could be her day job. “Best selling” and “poet” are not words that know each other well. They are not usually found next to each other, and the first two rarely modify the latter. Remarkably, Oliver’s tendency to avoid the pursuit of money and objects had brought her unsought, unlikely commercial success. But along the way, on her long walks, she often gathered clams, mussels, mushrooms and berries. She searched the dump—an image incongruent with my ignorant assumptions. As a girl, she’d made a list of all the things she was prepared to never have if she became a writer.

“I had a $100 car I used to stop by hitting a brick wall,” she once told students at a college Q&A. “It was a wonderful life.”

After Mary Oliver died on January 17, I read her 2011 interview with Shriver for the first time. Near the end, she spoke of wanting to write about “personal material,” wanting to be “braver and more honest” about her life. In that moment she chose to reveal publicly her childhood sexual abuse for the first time.

When Shriver asked if age—she was 76 at the time—had made her braver, Oliver instead credited “the forerunners who have dared to tell.” Again, I thought of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, then America’s most recent “forerunner” who “dared to tell.” Of course, Oliver is technically a forerunner, but admitted having been surprised that she’d even written a handful of poems like “Rage.” She also described being “very moved by Eve Ensler’s courage.”

The next words out of Oliver’s mouth stunned me.

Photo: Vivian Felten

“I now know it is a subject or theme I will not be avoiding,” she declared. “There will always be birds, but I’m gonna broaden out a little bit, or maybe a lot.” She also claimed to have one new “brave” poem that needed to be typed.

The fact that this master poet, in the last decade of her life, felt inspired by other women writers to be “braver”—and worked to write those new poems—suggests that Mary Oliver finally exited the building that had once sucked all the air out of her body, and escaped that “broken house” of her childhood once and for all.


Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms., winner of the 2021 Claire Keyes Poetry Award, and author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Texas Observer, The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review, and the print version of Ms. Magazine, among others. Her debut nonfiction book is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press. Ms. Muse, her column, features contemporary feminist poets and essays on the intersection of poetry, politics, and our lives. Follow her on Twitter: @ChivasSandage.