Mary Oliver: Poetry Summary

Mary Oliver: Poetry Summary


In the poem “August” the narrator is detailing how the family of her sick neighbor ignores her sickness and puts on a happy façade.

In the first stanza the narrator describes the first moment when they realized their neighbor, a mother with a lot of children who has known the narrator for many years, is sick. The narrator contrasts her former appearance, as a strong, healthy person, to the way she looks now, which is sickly, old and pained. However, the stanza also hints at the neighbor’s inner strength and humor as she is still speaking in her unique voice.

In the second stanza the narrator observes what is happening in her neighbor’s garden over the summer, noticing how her large family (consisting of the neighbor’s children and grandchildren) is visiting, giving the appearance of a happy family. No one seems to mention or acknowledge the mother’s sickness.

The third stanza introduces the neighbor’s partner, the father of her children, who goes along with the apparent happy normality of the situation. However, in this stanza, the tone changes as the happiness of the family seems forced. The narrator notices how “[t]hey all smile” (l. 15) and begin to urgently renovate the house. In the last line of the third stanza the narrator theorizes that they begin renovations on the house to compensate for not being able to change anything about the mother’s health, which implies that her illness is fatal.

In the last stanza, the narrator goes over the months again (the summer months) that they have been watching the neighbor’s family putting on a fake façade of happiness. The narrator likens this situation to a van Gogh painting, in which a man is putting his hands over his eyes, symbolizing that the family chooses not to see the negative changes in the mother.

Beside the Waterfall

In the poem “Beside the Waterfall” the narrator’s dog, called ‘Winston’, finds the body of a dead baby deer in the early morning, hidden underneath flowers next to a waterfall. The narrator’s peaceful and idyllic description of the scenery is in stark contrast with the dog’s behavior as he rips the baby deer’s head off and consumes it.

In the last two stanzas the narrator calls the dog, describing him as both something beautiful, kind and innocent yet dangerous and barbaric.


In the poem “Singapore” the narrator describes an experience in an airport restroom that fundamentally changed her attitude towards poetry.

The narrator enters a restroom in the airport in Singapore and surprises a cleaning lady who is cleaning one of the toilet bowls. While the narrator is at first disgusted, she later chastises herself for feeling this way and determines that everyone needs a job and that it doesn’t mean that the woman has a bad life.

She acknowledges that in poetry, people only yearn for beauty and nature and to be portrayed in the best and happiest way possible. She then begins to see these things in the cleaning lady who continues with her work.

In the last stanza the narrator expresses hope that the cleaning lady will eventually move on and up from this job, however unlikely, because life would be unbearable without this kind of hope.

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