(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Readers of Mary Oliver’s nineteenth volume of poetry, Evidence, will find themselves in familiar territory, as Oliver once again strides out into the Cape Cod countryside to find wisdom and beauty in nature. Readers will also find in this collection the urgent attention to matters of meaning that is characteristic of Oliver’s poetry. Oliver in Evidence obliquely turns away from the heavy grief of her earlier volume Thirst (2006) and the dark undertone of Red Bird (2008). In Evidence, Oliver’s work is less somber, more centered, and fully engaged with the processes of life in all its glory.

This is not to say that Oliver does not write about death in this volume. On the contrary, she faces death, her own and those of beloved animals and friends, with an assuredness that was not as pronounced in her earlier works. It is as if she has come to terms with loss by gaining greater understanding of what it means to love. For example, in “Swans,” Oliver first reports that she wants some physical reminder of the lovely swans that fly overhead, such as a feather, in order to demonstrate that the swans were real and not just her imagination. She closes, the poems, however, with the thought that the beloved is not something that requires physical presence: That which is beloved must be “believed in” rather than held. Such belief can transcend the “unreachable distance” that separates Oliver from the swans flying overhead.

Oliver observes the interplay of life and death in a number of poems as well. In one of the finest, “Prince Buzzard,” she evokes rich mythological and religious symbols in her consideration of a buzzard flying overhead. Calling the buzzard “prince” evokes royal figures such as the prince of darkness, a sobriquet used for Hades, the Greek ruler of the underworld. Oliver further emphasizes this connection by reporting that she mistakes the buzzard drifting in the updraft for a “narrow boat and two black sails,” perhaps alluding to the boat used by Charon in Greek mythology to ferry people across the River Styx to the underworld.

The buzzard comes down from its high spirals to investigate a dead lamb in a spring field. Oliver emphasizes the certainty of the lamb’s death by repeating the world “dead” three times. Oliver chooses the dead creature with care; a lamb in Christian iconography is a symbol for the Christ. Indeed, the words “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us” form an important part of the litany of the Catholic Mass. Lambs are regarded symbolically as both innocent and sacrificial within a Christian context. Thus, Oliver’s choice of rendering the lamb as carrion serves as both a striking image and a potent symbol.

Oliver states that she knows that it is hunger that draws the buzzard to the lamb’s body, but she describes the buzzard’s slow approach to the corpse as reverential, his pause before the lamb’s body as a “ceremony.” Her description might be connected to the act of a priest blessing the host before the sacrament of holy communion. Indeed, in Catholicism, doctrine teaches that the host becomes the literal body and blood of Christ through transubstantiation. Thus, just as the worshiper consumes the actual body and blood of Christ in a holy, life-giving ritual, the buzzard consumes the flesh of the lamb, and the flesh sustains the buzzard’s life.

That Oliver intends for readers to move from death to life in this poem is clear by her final stanza. Just as she includes the words “dead, dead, dead” in stanza three, in stanza nine she writes that nothing remains of the lamb in the field in the summer, only “flowers, flowers, flowers.” Thus, the remains of the lamb have nourished both the buzzard and the flowers of the field. The cycle is complete: The lamb of God has died in order to prepare the way for new birth.

Oliver makes the same point in a less symbolic way in “Landscape in Winter.” In this short poem, a dead animal on the snow attracts a crowd of carrion crows. The crows speak, announcing that a death has occurred and that “this is good for us.” In Oliver’s world, the carrion eaters perform not only a useful but also a necessary task in the cycle of life.


(The entire section is 1760 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

America 200, no. 14 (May 4, 2009): 28-30.

Booklist 105, no. 13 (March 1, 2009): 14.