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Starlings in Winter by Mary Oliver


Dear T.,

For many years we’ve been lost at sea. Adrift. Unanchored. We rode wave after wave after wave. We learned to love the water, learned to embrace the drowning that comes, the burning in our lungs. For the longest time we thought this is all we’ll ever be: a nymph in the deep murk and a monster all the same, the kind of creature that has survived the depths.

We can’t undo everything we have brought upon ourself—this much is true. Everything we have ever loved in our tiny life has made all the difference. Praise the self in fifth grade who started to turn away from maths in favour of words. Praise the thirteen-year old who discovered Brubeck and Monk and Coltrane and understood that language comes in different forms. Praise the self who wrote a column in the school paper and who was, for a time, enamoured with Robert Frost and Alanis Morisette and e.e. cummings and Jose Villa and Michael Jordan and Princess Diana, who made mixtapes and wrote letters from torn notebooks, who wrote silly lyrics and even sillier rhymes. Praise the self that wanted to be a journalist instead of an accountant, and then ended up becoming a business major, then one day walked into a room full of poets and artists and thought: here is where I want to be.

Praise the self who loved so deeply at sixteen, and at nineteen and at twenty-two, and at thirty-two and at thirty-four, who wanted the whole world to happen to her—all that blooms and bruises—

How do they do it. People, I mean. How do they go on without chafing against the world. How do we now begin to grow roots, now that we’re out of the water, now that we’ve arrived at a time in our lives when there’s nothing left to do but to blossom?

I want everything that love has to offer: what is impossible and what will wound us and what will break us open. I want to grow towards joy and throw wide the curtains of my life to let the light in.

Oh praise the poet that clung to our skin and bones. Everything we have ever loved has saved us and carried us, both. And today of all days: happy birthday, T., dear self, dear fool. Thirty-seven years and beloved. Yes: beloved.

Starlings in Winter
Mary Oliver

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.


This poem appeared in Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press, 2006. Shared here with profound gratitude.


Read more works by Mary Oliver • Find books by this poet• Or view my library


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