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I’ve bought many copies of Mary Oliver’s poems, Devotions, and on Friday I gave away the last so now I’m ordering more. I gave it to a friend whose description of brushing his dogs’ teeth reminded me of Oliver’s description of a grasshopper sitting in her hand and eating sugar, the jaws moving side to side, not up and down.

He said he uses a finger pad with bristles and a beef-flavored toothpaste and the dogs tolerate it well and the brushing spares them dental miseries so it made sense. Oliver carefully describes the grasshopper chewing and washing its face and flying away and then —

It’s a sweet little souvenir of a September evening in 1954, north of Minneapolis, and a boy wanting to preserve the wonder of concurrence, the hymn, the stars, the apples, the dog’s cold wet nose.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention …
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Paying attention is what Oliver does in her poetry, it’s what her poems are about, walking out in the natural world and seeing what’s there. Unlike most poets working today, she doesn’t write about her own troubles. She writes:

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on …

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination.

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I came across an Oliveresque passage in a journal of mine from when I was 12, standing one September evening after dishes were done, behind our house, under my dad’s apple trees, and my mother at the piano playing “Abide with me” and I wrote:

Abide with me, another autumn day.
Night falls, the sky fills with the Milky Way.
An old piano, golden apples and
Dishes are done, my dog’s nose in my hand.

It’s a sweet little souvenir of a September evening in 1954, north of Minneapolis, and a boy wanting to preserve the wonder of concurrence, the hymn, the stars, the apples, the dog’s cold wet nose. He declined to draw any conclusion or to bring himself into the poem. Below the poem he notes that the word “racecar” is the same forward or backward.

Years later, I’m sitting in a steakhouse, hearing about brushing dogs’ teeth and thinking about Mary Oliver’s grasshopper while ten feet away eight drunks in their twenties sit around a table, having a wonderful time being stupid and very loud.

I don’t think I’ve been loud often in my life, but I’ve certainly been stupid. Once I got myself a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin with a separate workroom, 10x15, on stilts, with a stove and a big window looking into the trees, no house or road in sight. I sat at a table looking out the window and it was startling, when a deer walked out of the underbrush or a bird flew by. Shocking once, when a porcupine stopped and looked up at me.

I am not Mary Oliver, however, and don’t have the patience to think about a porcupine and design a poem around him (or her, I also don’t recognize gender except for deer), and I am not a birdwatcher. I was working on a book, The Book of Guys, and none of the guys was a hunter or hermit or forest ranger. And after a year I concluded that peace and quiet made me uneasy. A porcupine is interesting for a few minutes and maybe if I were looking up at the stars and smelling apples as someone played the piano and a porcupine put his nose in my hand, I could get a poem out of it, but poetry isn’t my line. Sorry, I’m a money writer.

And then I met my friend who became my lover and she was a New Yorker and I abandoned the cabin and workroom and we married in 1995. She is a daily walker but prefers Central Park with its great variety of humanity. Out of mistakes comes happiness. We gain good judgment by exercising bad.


Had I made the enormous mistake of buying myself a dog, I might’ve been comfortable in isolation and I’d still be there today, a cranky bachelor, unvaccinated, not brushing its teeth or my own, listening to Fox, with twenty “Keep Out” signs posted, a pile of hundreds of empty Jack Daniels bottles, and a couple of loaded AK-47s by the door. I much prefer talking to you than listening for intruders. Thank you for that.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions