Mary Oliver’s Cancer Poem
“The end of life has its own nature also worth our attention.”
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—
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.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
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.