A Journal of the Arts
Mary Oliver was a modern-day Romantic. Meaning, like the great Romantics of the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century such as Shelley and Keats, Oliver wrote her poetry with a seemingly religious response to the natural world around her. Her poem, “Oxygen” is beautifully constructed, vivid with rich imagery and raw emotion on the surface. It is a seemingly simple poem that uncovers the speaker’s deep revelations about life, death and about the necessity of love. Oliver’s Romantic style of combining the human experience and the beauty and superiority of the natural world into one single entity is evident in “Oxygen” when she takes the air that we physically need to breathe and writes about it in a way that becomes synonymous with the human emotion of love; something this poem tells us is vital to truly living.
To fully understand why Oliver’s poetry preaches to the reader the significance of the human bond with nature, it is important to consider where Oliver came from. In an interview conducted in 2015 by Krista Tippet from On Being, Oliver discusses her childhood and her struggles with certain ideas in the Christian community:
“And then I had trouble with the resurrection. So, I would not join the church. But I was
still probably more interested than many of the kids who did enter the church. It’s been
one of the most important interests of my life and continues to be. And it doesn’t have to
be Christianity…I know that a life is much richer with a spiritual part to it. And I also
think nothing is more interesting. So, I cling to it.” (Oliver)
The spiritual part of life Oliver discovers, as she highlights many times in the same interview, is a deep, emotional connection with nature; a connection she found in the salvation of the woods at her childhood home in north eastern Ohio. To escape the abuse of her father, Oliver would spend hours on end walking around the woods, writing poetry in her journal. Oliver says, “I think it saved my life…It was a very bad childhood for everybody…But I did find the entire world in looking for something. But I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world,” (Oliver). This comfort she found in nature strongly influences Oliver’s Romantic style. Even in a poem like “Oxygen,” where the speaker is inside their home, thinking about death, homages to nature are still there to anchor human life to the natural world, be it the passionate life of the fire, the beauty of a dozen roses or the acute necessity of the air we breathe.
In “Oxygen,” the reader meets a speaker who is processing through their feelings about a loved one who is gravely ill and nearing death. It is significant to know that in 2005, when the poem was written, Oliver’s long-time partner, Molly Malone Cook, passed away after losing her battle with lung cancer. It is reasonable to assume that “Oxygen” is a poem in which Oliver is processing her own feelings about life and death. With this in mind, the tone of the speaker is not of sadness, but one of gratitude. There is no evidence of anger in the speaker’s voice. The feeling of sadness is overpowered by a complacent sense of calm. How the speaker is processing the demise of their loved one strongly reflects Oliver’s own feelings towards death. In the interview with Tippett, Oliver shares how she views the end of our lives:
“…everything’s a little energy. You go back, and you’re these little bits of energy, and pretty
soon you’re something else… The world is pretty much — everything is mortal. It dies. But
its parts don’t die. Its parts become something else. We know that when we bury a dog in
the garden and with a rose bush on top of it. We know that there is replenishment. And
that’s pretty amazing. What more there might be, I don’t know. But I’m pretty confident of
that one.” (Oliver)
Oliver is firm in her convictions, which stand prominently in the foreground of all her writing. The fact that Oliver believes we become something new and replenished when we die allows her to find acceptance in her grief. Which in turn, allows her to bring light to the darkest of subjects. The reader can feel an overwhelming sense of comfort in the speaker’s attitude and appreciation for the end of life.
The reader finds the speaker tending a fire, symbolizing their role as a caretaker. They are caring for the fire and quietly listening to the sounds coming from the breathing machine in the upstairs bedroom. It is in this moment of solidarity, the speaker begins to think about the necessity of oxygen, “Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even, / while it calls the earth its home, the soul,” (Oliver 1,2). These beginning lines of the poem are essential, because the speaker is acknowledging the complete dependency we have on oxygen. Saying that even the soul needs oxygen to survive implies that maybe oxygen is a symbol of something deeper, something less tangible. But, what besides oxygen are we as human so deeply reliant on for survival? Food? Water? Yes, but what Oliver is telling us with this poem is that humans need love to thrive.
Further into the poem, the reader can see that the speaker appears to be coping well under the circumstances of this person’s death. There is an aura of strength that seems to be emitting from the speaker’s words. Oliver again alludes the reader to thoughts of dependency when the speaker talks about how intertwined the two’s lives have been:
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know
where to drop the knife of
separation.” (Oliver 13-17)
They have spent their lives blended together, inseparable. Their strong, loving relationship became integral and seamless, as essential to life as the air we breathe. This powerful image tells us that the potency of a relationship filled with love and strength gives us this need and desire for the other person that we cannot truly live and thrive without. The lines in the poem that give substance to this claim are, “And what does this have to do / with love, except / everything?” (Oliver 17-19). The deep connection that runs between these two characters and the love they share essentially means everything, and without it who knows where the speaker would be. It seems that the unbreakable bond of love is what drives this speaker forward, allowing them to put their grief on the back burner to step back and look at the bigger picture.
The end of the poem is where Oliver really shines in her modern Romantic style, connecting nature, love, life and death. The speaker watches the fire as it, “rises / and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red / roses of flame,” (Oliver 19-21). The fire, a bright and burning force of nature, is meant to symbolize life; feeding off oxygen in order to grow. This fire rises to consume the oxygen around it, and it’s beautiful and lively; like our lives as we travel through infancy into adulthood:
“Then it settles
To quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
As we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
Our purest, sweet necessity: the air.” (Oliver 21-24)
Oliver gives us this beautifully humble image of the fire dying down to embers. It is quiet, it is grateful, and it will continue to feed on the oxygen that is left, until it is extinguished. This metaphor is the speaker accepting not only their loved one’s eminent death, but their own eventual death as well. Oliver then brings the entirety of this together with the final line in the poem, “Our purest, sweet necessity: the air,” (Oliver 24). This line takes the feelings of love that have been built up through the course of the poem and merges them with air, making them one in the same, a vital and seamless entity.
Poetry is meant to be a communal experience shared and felt by everyone; something that too often goes unappreciated. Luckily, we still have a handful of incredible individuals, like Oliver, who see poetry as an opportunity to give a gift to the world. That gift is a voice of comfort, a voice that reaches out its hands when we feel lost. Oliver’s “Oxygen” may be the words of one individual who is experiencing loss, but she has written it in a way that wraps her arms around anyone who has ever lost, as if to say, “We are in this together.” The power of poetry gives the receptive reader strength to endure their trials with a peaceful mind and a soothed heart. This is why we should all consider making the effort to engage with poetry and consider what a poem is trying to say to us. Because if we could allow ourselves to understand the connections poets are trying to make with their readers, we would never have to feel alone again.
Oliver, Mary. “Listening to the World.” Interviewed by Krista Tippett. On Being, 5 Feb. 2015,
Oliver, Mary. “Oxygen.” Literature to Go, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 373.
Thirsty for Love: Mary Oliver and Grieving
By: Heather Phillips
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