Mary Oliver, and Peonies

In honor of National Poetry month, I am dedicating my April blog to the tender and beautiful poem “Peonies,”* by Mary Oliver. As it happens, my own peonies are now surging up into the sun, getting ready to burst open and become, as she says, “pools of lace, white and pink.”

These unshrinking flowers were bequeathed to me by one of the former owners of our house. I never have done much for them — hardly even weeded their beds. Yet each spring they stir, deep underground (like poems themselves) and then just explode up, inexplicable and shocking as a dream that wakes me, heavy-eyed and slightly confused at dawn’s first light. Like those dreams, they are bolder, more extravagant and bizarre than anything my conscious mind could’ve conjured.

But the peonies themselves are not confused. They know to lunge out of the earth every spring, and BE PEONIES. These are no timid plants. Vulnerable, yes, but undeterred. They have braved the shade of our giant maple, and the blaze of sun after the maple died. They have survived the toy swords of little boys and the shears of bouquet-makers. These are flowers that just keep coming.

I used to get exasperated with them falling over from the weight of their excessively heavy heads. And their fragrance will just about knock you down as you approach our house when they’re in full bloom. But over the years I’ve come to love them, accept their flaws, prop them up, and keep cutting them and putting them in vases so they don’t fall over and rot on the lawn.

As Mary Oliver always seems to know, every little bit of life — even peonies — can be a metaphor.

For aren’t we all flawed, sometimes too top-heavy to stand up entirely alone? Aren’t we all just “too much,” sometimes, for someone? Aren’t we all blooming, uncontrollably, somehow, putting forth what we have and are, whether anyone appreciates it or not? Aren’t peonies like that urge to write that keeps coming back, despite all setbacks, that internal imperative that won’t be denied?

So, yes, Mary Oliver, I do “adore the green grass with its terror beneath.” I’m glad you asked.

© CanStock Photo tvirbickis

And, come blossom time, I promise to do as I have these many summers past, to “hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness,” to fill my arms “with their honeyed heaviness . . . their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment.”

And I promise, too, to be as persistent as a peony, drawing deep from my roots, and putting forth whatever blooms, with courage and good heart.

Thank you, Mary Oliver.

And thank you to all the poets out there, who remind us to tap into the source of our deepest truths however we can, and bravely share them.


*Please read “Peonies,” by Mary Oliver, in New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press).

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