November 12, 2021 | LIFE | By Kristen Richards | Illustration by Sierra Romero

One morning, I sat on the floor of Tattered Cover Bookstore and took out every Mary Oliver book from the poetry section. I was determined to find a single, magnificent poem: “Wild Geese.” 

I found “Devotions,” a collection of Mary Oliver poems, and flipped through every page before I found it. Wild Geese. 

A few years earlier, I read the poem on the back of a notecard and ever since, I searched for a copy I could call my own. Something in me knew it would be worth buying an entire book just for one poem. 

“Wild Geese” has spoken to me in more ways than I even realize. It is widely assumed that Oliver is the speaker of the poem, but whoever is the speaker is trying to convey the real beauty of nature to a very specific you

“You do not have to be good,” the poem starts. In this way, the poem directly addresses the audience and, for me, makes Oliver’s words feel so much more personal. 

If I had to pick a favorite line from this poem, I would say every line and every word. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” is one line that envelops the speaker and audience in conversation with one another. 

The juxtaposition of human despair and animal freedom brings together a feeling that one can be the solution of another. But it is not. Oliver ends the poem in such a way where nature does not resolve human suffering: it simply exists. 

The audience is left wondering what despair is — is it their own? — and what they can do to end their perceived pain. In “Wild Geese,” Oliver argues that perhaps the diminishing of human suffering would mean the diminishing connection to nature as well. 

Maybe we are meant to feel the pain, but not a debilitating amount. “You do not have to walk on your knees/For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” The speaker of this poem gives grace for the audience to claim comfort as their own. 

The poem continues on: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely/the word offers its to your imagination,/calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.” 

These lines are a tribute to the way that humanity is drawn towards nature as salvation. All within just a few words, Oliver overlaps the natural world as imagination with the unspoken conversation between people and the wild geese. 

But despite the title of this poem, “Wild Geese” is not really about wild geese at all. Instead, it is about how the wild geese function as a way of communication. The wild geese call, and the world responds. 

For me, this poem is a reminder to see my own world in a perspective. What perspective? I’m still not sure. All I know is that the natural world does not require the perfection of the technological world we have deemed a utopia. “Wild Geese ” argues not for utopia or that nature is the solution. Nature is the way that we are able to see the problem. 

This poem makes me want to lay in the sand on a beach in the winter and watch the snow fall in the light of the moon. This poem makes me want to see but not touch the flocks of geese, to feel but not peel the bark of every tree. In every way of the word, this poem makes me want to appreciate: the world, the people around me, the sky, and, of course, the wild geese.  

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