Why We Can’t Separate Mary Oliver’s Queerness From Her Poetry

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”

Growing up as a lesbian poetry enthusiast, I discovered the joy of Mary Oliver’s writing through the internet. I saw her being cherished for her style of environmentalist writing, gentle imagery, and positivism. It was years before I found out that she was a part of the lesbian community, and lived on Cape Cod with Molly Malone Cook, her soul-mate, who died in 2005.

Upon this realization, I felt like I’d been robbed of a queer role model, and the queer lens through which her poetry deserved to be studied. Moreover, I wondered how years of experts, critics and amateur readers such as I negated the very obvious sapphic symbolism in her nature poetry. Digging deeper, I uncovered that not only were Oliver’s queer themes negated in her nature poetry, but that the very idea that all she wrote about was the green around her, is, in itself, a disservice to queer poetry.

Oliver wrote about destruction, suicidality, desire, and perhaps most importantly, bodies. A recurring theme throughout her poetry is that of affirmation of bodies: that of one’s own, and one’s lover’s. What her work attempts to establish is the idea that our queer bodies are vital, and deserving of love and validation.

“the answering, the rousing,
great run toward the interior,
the unseen, the unknowable

The Gardens

Moreover, the disregarding and separating of Oliver’s queerness from her work implies that her poetry can exist as an isolated unit, removed from her identity. Worse, it implies that being queer is only about whom you love and whom you have sex with, that it is not about the way you see the world and your place in it. Mary Oliver, a woman who ran away from an abusive home at the age of fourteen, was skeptical of organized religion, and was deeply disappointed by climate change deserves better than a romanticized, watered-down idea of queerness.

She was not just a Pulitzer-winning poet who happened to love women. She was a writer whose queer outlook, resistance to oppression, abuse, and the harsh nature of human existence permeated her expression.

“There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back,”

Don’t Hesitate

“If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world
can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.”


The notion is well conveyed by Andrea Gibson, a queer poet and activist, in an interview with GOMAG, “My queerness impacts every aspect of my creative process. It shapes how I think, how I feel…And along the same lines, my creative process impacts my queerness. I uncover a lot about myself through writing….I don’t know who I am and write it down. I write and then know who I am”.

In her darker poems, Oliver expressed hurt about the careless and damaging ways in which social structures were influencing the environment. She talked about how child abuse and neglect was rampant— and that she was just another one with an “insufficient childhood”. Her poetry, a body of work that wrote gently about the being present in the moment to witness the “menial” things in life, and was thus written off as “overly simplistic”, received endless misogynistic and lesbophobic critique. She hardly gave interviews because she was wary of having to give of herself, and of leaving her desk and the woods.

It’s hard to wrap my mind around why Mary O. isn’t more popular as a queer role model. She resisted norms, was skeptical of those who conformed, wrote what she wanted to and how she wanted to while disregarding the pressure to change her style of poetry, and saw herself as deeply loving in spite of the media labeling her a “recluse”.

In her poetry is a profound feeling of being seen for many queer persons. Only few poets can express distaste in a way that feels kind and ethereal, which is perhaps resonant of the complexity of the queer experience.

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Srishti Uppal is a nineteen-year-old poet and essayist from New Delhi. Their favourite writers include Alok V. Menon, Richard Silken, and Mary Oliver. Their work can be found in Marias at Sampaguitas, Human/Kind Journal, The Temz Review, among others.
Srishti Uppal

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