On its surface, Mary Oliver’s White Pine reads like a calendar of rural life; the very titles of many of the poems seem to demarcate the months and seasons of the year— “June,” “August,” “September,” “Fall,” “December.” Other poems with less seasonal names nevertheless bear settings and weather references that tie them firmly to specific parts of the year—the morning glories that twine around the ripe corn, the wintry day when deer appear in the field. Yet the label “nature poet,” whatever it might actually mean, seems dismissive when it is applied to Oliver’s complex use of the natural world to comment on the human mysteries of love, pain, death, beauty, and poetry.
In form, many of these poems use the short lines and small stanzas that readers often associate with Oliver’s work. Even “In Blackwater Woods,” the longest poem in the collection, is subdivided into fourteen short lyrics, some consisting of only three or four lines.
The collection also includes fifteen prose poems (all the poems with month names for titles, as well as several others), which may seem to mark Oliver’s intention to depart from her established paths. Still, if one compares a “short line” poem such as the highly narrative “I Found a Dead Fox” with a very lyric prose poem such as the last section of “In Blackwater Woods,” the significance of the distinction between lyric and prose seems to vanish.
Certainly readers familiar with Oliver’s work will recognize her voice in these works. Her usual powerful images are here: the opossum is “a small pig with a savage head”; the porcupine is “a plump, dark lady/ wearing a gown of nails.” Hummingbirds, “with every dollop of flight,/ drawing a perfect wheel” shimmer before her face; her description makes the reader see them as carefully as she does. There are other elements present in her voice beyond precise description, however. There is a sort of shy humor in “William,” when Oliver speaks of a child who “comes pecking, like a bird, at my heart.” Her recognition that children assume every right to claim the adults’ world calls another gently humorous response: “I feel myself begin to wilt, like an old flower, weak in the stem.” Oliver is often perceived to be a rather impersonal poet whose calling is minutely to chronicle the events of the natural world, but much of the effect of her chronicles lies in their juxtaposition with quite conversational statements. In “Fletcher Oak,” after she has described the tree, Oliver concludes “I am going to spend my life wisely. I’m going to be happy, and frivolous, and useful.” It is probably incorrect to describe this as a personal tone, and Oliver herself has said that she is not interested in recording the purely personal; instead it seems to be the conversational voice of the observer, the writer of the woods’ history, the one who, in a world of foxes and deer, can report to the rest of us in her quiet, unpretentious voice.
The usual assumption is that a nature poet describes the beauties of nature, beauties that are themselves clichés, like the pictures on an old-fashioned calendar. Certainly, Oliver is eager to communicate natural beauty, but she is always concerned with its moral effect on the viewer. True beauty can be life-changing, she says. In “The Pinewoods,” for example, she describes an early morning scene of deer leaping through the mist toward the bog. She then recalls a time years before when deer did not run away but instead, “in some kind of rapturous mistake” they walked toward her, even touched her hands. “I have been, ever since,/ separated from my old, comfortable life/ of experience and deduction—/ I have been, ever since,/ exalted.” This is the power of beauty; like the power of mystic experience, it can lift us out of ourselves into a more potent sort of experience beyond the intellectual, experience that leaves us touched forever. In “Blackwater Woods,” the fifth section celebrates the joyful multiplicity of the world by citing the mockingbird’s ecstatic imitation of seventeen different songbirds, all of which Oliver names. At the end of his performance, the mockingbird flung his body into the air, evidently in sheer delight at the richness of life.
Oliver’s most moving pictures, however, are often tense with awareness of the destruction and death that inform the natural world. The world is beautiful but hard, she reminds us. In “Snails,” she details the experience of standing at the salt marsh to hear the “faint, gritty music” made by the munching of a landscape full of snails, which are everywhere “sucking and scraping whatever it is they eat.” We do not find them beautiful, but in their relentless sucking they seem to direct us to important questions about ourselves: “Who are we? What are our chances?”
Death holds a presence...
(The entire section is 1995 words.)