our part is not knowing



Understand, I am always trying to figure out
what the soul is,
and where hidden,
and what shape –

and so, last week,
when I found on the beach
the ear bone
of a pilot whale that may have died

hundreds of years ago, I thought
maybe I was close
to discovering something –
for the ear bone


is the portion that lasts longest
in any of us, man or whale; shaped
like a squat spoon
with a pink scoop where

once, in a lively swimmer’s head,
it joined its two sisters
in the house of hearing,
it was only

two inches long –
and I thought: the soul
might be like this –
so hard, so necessary –


yet almost nothing.
Beside me
the gray sea
was opening and shutting its wave-doors,

unfolding over and over
its time-ridiculing roar;
I looked but I couldn’t see anything
through its dark-knit glare;

yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
is there at the bottom,
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it


lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts –
certainties –
and what the soul is, also

I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,

but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.

– Mary Oliver

image: Georgia O’Keeffe, Pelvis With the Distance, 1943

2 thoughts on “our part is not knowing”

  1. There is much beauty in these words. The idea that all the universe, and the complexity of the soul, is wrapped up in something that we would often overlook as insignificant. And the thought that if we analyze something too much, we destroy the simple beauty that it contains.


  2. I love Oliver. I’m blog reading/catching up as desperately as I can tonight. My eyes lighted on this post of yours, and even more intently, because it is Oliver (one of my fave poets of all time).

    I’d never read this poem before.

    (and now after reading it…)
    I think my life just began.

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