Mary Oliver seems to mean by the title of her collection of poetry Dream Work an intuitive as well as deliberate movement toward a nature-oriented perception of oneself. Dreams are an important vehicle for this movement, and nature is both in them and the goal toward which they move, the goal being life in its truest sense. If this sounds like Romanticism, it is, but with a twist. Instead of viewing man as a dimly divine creature discovering godhead in nature, Oliver’s Romanticism leaves out the divine aspect and the human egotism; she regards nature simply as the best place for a person to see where he or she belongs.
For Oliver, nature is hard to avoid. It is an overwhelming presence, and the way one pays attention to it is not mainly through reason but through the subconscious and through intuition. In order to find out what nature is all about, one must be feelingly open to it. At first, at least, nature is frightening. In “Banyan,” she shows how the organisms in nature are inexorable, beginning as seeds and ending as insatiable growth. Not only is nature hungry, predatory, as in “Bowing to the Empress,” but also impersonal. The destructive forces in nature see no link with their human victims because they cannot. There is no love or hate in them as there is in people, which makes them hard for people to accept. Yet accept them people must, for nature is as much man’s home as it is the home of anything else in it, and people acknowledge these forces—some of them, at least—by living with nature’s dangers, as in “The Waves,” and by personifying its dark power, as in “The Chance to Love Everything.”
One may talk about nature, but one cannot talk to it, for it has no mind. Except for man, the creatures of nature simply act. They do not think about what they do (“The Turtle”), they do not talk about what happens to them (“The Shark”). What goes on, however, inside these creatures, inside organisms, parallels what goes on inside man on the level of instinct. It is on this level that man’s unique ability to think about himself finds its best use—in showing him, through dreams and imagination, that his isolation in pride or despair is foolish, that his meaning is embedded in the features of nature itself.
Aside from her liking for nature, how does Oliver find this out? She does so through dreams. What are dreams to her? They are the opposite of that mental activity which seeks to hide or control. They force one to face oneself, to admit one’s guilt and fear, to go beyond the boundaries one imposes on one’s perception. In “Rage,” Oliver sees her father dreaming about her.
His guilt forces him to see how badly he hurt her psyche by hiding his love for her. She presents her own dream about him in “A Visitor,” in which she does not cringe from him as she used to but faces him as the cruel and hollowed-out person he was, and, realizing the longing in him for expiation, she accepts him into herself, thus finally freeing herself from the paralysis of which he was the source. Indeed, one of the main lessons of dreams for Oliver is that the feelings which stunt and free people are most accessible to them in their sleep.
If dreams teach Oliver to trust her feelings, nature teaches her feelings—often through the analogues and personifications she brings to bear on them—what life is really all about. In “Whispers,” she learns that the paralysis of self-absorption has little to do with the healthy life that nature leads in its humdrum fashion. She finds that when she is in nature and patient with herself, she gradually opens to the life it shares with her. In “Sunrise,” the sun, its warmth, teaches her happiness. In going back to its source, the river in “The River” shows her what progress toward a sense of home means. She sees that nature is not merely a clash of forces resulting in exhaustion but that, for example, the male wind helps to impregnate the female earth. In “Clamming,”...
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