Mary Oliver is one of a small handful of poets who has had both critical and popular success. She has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Her readers include many people for whom poetry is a small part of their reading life. That is, she has managed to win an audience among the general reading public that usually, when it turns to poetry at all, turns to practitioners of warm, fuzzy, amateurish drivel. By widening the audience for serious, accomplished poetry, Oliver has done a great service to poetry itself. West Wind, her ninth full-length collection, is presented to that larger audience as well as to the audience already committed to poetic excellence.
In design, West Wind looks like a small coffee table book. The shape of the book is odd, almost square, its extra-wide pages giving more than the usual breathing space to Oliver’s poems. There is an extra half-title page following the contents, its verso blank, and then the first section divider, with its verso blank as well. Sections end on recto pages, leaving blank versos ahead of the next divider. All in all, a luxurious display of white space frames the poetry, although two short-lined poems are set in double columns, thus confined to one page rather than spread over two. The book design, with is unusual juxtapositions of typography and open space, hints at the spiritual, ascendant quality of Oliver’s writing. It is as if the print is the heavy world and the marks one makes upon it, and the generous frame of white is the silent ecstatic state one can enter through and beyond it.
Not conventionally (or institutionally) religious, these poems nevertheless are poems of faith and miracle. Oliver is attentive to miracle in the natural world; or, closer to it, the miracle of the natural world. Her gift of words is to serve by celebrating and sharing her rapture of beholding and belonging. Oliver’s stance, then, is much like English poet Percy Shelley’s in his “Ode to the West Wind,” and her title pays homage to this far more ostentatious poet-priest of nature.
Her collection has three parts in a structure of diminuendo. The first part, containing twenty-six poems, comprises the bulk of the book. The second section, titled “West Wind,” is a thirteen-part numbered sequence. The final section is a single poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches,” which recapitulates Oliver’s major themes. The shape of the book, then, enacts a movement toward silence.
The first part is introduced by a quotation from A. Gilchrist’s Life and Works of William Blake (1863). In the company of “persons of a scientific turn,” Blake heard them declaiming upon the great distances between planets and how long it takes for light to reach the earth. Blake responded, “’Tis false! I was walking down a lane the other day, and at the end of it I touched the sky with my stick.” Similarly, Oliver can stand rooted in this world and feel herself transported to the heavens. Her imagination, like that of the great Romantic poets, closes the distances between the everyday and the extraordinary, the temporal and the eternal. These remarks should not suggest that Oliver’s work is old-fashioned. She is a skillful practitioner of contemporary free verse. One of her characteristic devices is the grammatical parallelism first honed into a vigorous poetic technique by Walt Whitman. Stretches of such poems as “Spring,” “Stars,” “Morning Walk,” and “Dog” use this device to advantage, the power of enumeration and accumulation driving the emotional register to crescendo after crescendo. In “Morning Walk,” Oliver describes the fate of whelks:
they come one by one
to the shore
to the shallows
to the mussel-dappled rocks
to the rise to dryness
to the edge of the town
Streams of propositional phrases and longer structures roll and carry Oliver’s images in a processional...
(The entire section is 1639 words.)