Mary Oliver’s presence in her poems is most often a clear-sighted moving of eye and mind while staying physically still. She disappears, in a sense, by projecting her sense and moral life onto precise and compelling images that draw the reader into the “I” as experiencer. Through the projection of sensibility in the scene of nature, she can be harsh but accepting and express responsibility for her own life. For example, in “Moccasin Flowers” (from House of Light), the plant and human merge in spiritual ecstasy:
But all my life—so far— I have loved best how the flowers rise and open, howthe pink lungs of their bodies enter the fire of the world and stand there shining and willing—the onething they can do before they shuffle forward into the floor of darkness, they become the trees.
In her characteristic step-down lines, which give a feel of graceful floating, Oliver expresses the nature and work of beings to be fully and joyfully in the world before they move on to their merging in death.
Although Oliver began writing in the midst of the confessional movement of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, she never took on a victim persona. To the contrary, all her effort has gone toward entering the deepest truths of what is within reach of human consciousness. Thus she embraces the totality, from people’s wild and animal nature—joyful and painful—to their storied and moral questionings. Most often looking to nature for experiential knowledge, she is deeply Romantic in the American vein, taking as her models Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Whitman. The opening of “The Buddha’s Last Instruction” (from House of Light) succinctly states her aim: “’Make of yourself a light.’” The closing line, “He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd,” speaks of the terrifying difficulty of that journey. Between these lines, Oliver sees existence as a gift of “inexplicable value,” and to see this fact, which is imaged in the sun, is to become oneself a light. The way of healing and spiritual awareness is through entering what nature knows.
No Voyage, and Other Poems
Oliver’s first five volumes of poetry, published over sixteen years, show the poet beginning with a lyrical “I” who is, like Whitman, awake, watching and listening to nature, simultaneously an individual person grounded in a scene of mythic resonance and “at ease in darkness” of creative natural life. In “Being Country Bred,” from her first collection, No Voyage, and Other Poems,
Spring is still miles away, and yet I wakeThroughout the dark, listen, and throb with allHer summoning explosions underground.
The dark underside of nature is the unconscious coming to light, bringing danger and the excitement of possibility. In “No Voyage” (the title poem), she refuses to leave her own identity, determining instead to stay and “make peace with the fact” of her grief.
The poems of No Voyage, and Other Poems and The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems are conventionally versified, and many are narrative-based vignettes of people from Oliver’s childhood. “At Blackwater Pond” (collected in New and Selected Poems), however, is a short nine-line lyric that presages her mature work. In a baptism-communion-resurrection scene, the poet dips her hands in water and drinks.
. . . It tasteslike stone, leaves, fire. It falls coldinto my body, waking the bones. I hear themdeep inside me, whisperingoh what is that beautiful thingthat just happened?
The mystery of ecstatic awakening precisely matches the flow of rapturous experience.
The subject and technique develop further in Twelve Moons—for instance, in “Mussels,” with its short, step-down lines resisting, like the shelled animals, her grip. In “Sleeping in the Forest,” the poet finds herself imaginatively transformed as she becomes a dark, fluid consciousness, one with the night’s beings and businesses: “By morning/ I had vanished at least a dozen times/ into something better.” James Wright’s influence is evident (three poems are dedicated to him) in the leaving of the body in ecstatic moments to “break into blossom.”
With American Primitive, Oliver achieved a fully developed vision of return to the earth for healing and a reciprocal healing of the earth. The acute perceptiveness and radiant clarity presaged in some earlier poems arrive strong and sustained. Using nature and Native American themes, the poet shows the body becoming firmly the locus of mind and spirit. However, there is a clear separation; Oliver is fully aware that boundaries can be crossed but must be crossed back again. Knowledge is brought back from the visions of nature.
Poems such as “Lightning” and “Vultures” acknowledge the journey into the other world as fearful and painful: Sorrow and death are part of nature, and the only way to heal is to accept this and go the difficult path straight through terror. “Mushrooms” accepts nature’s poisonous aspects but engages respect versus fear as the helpful knowledge. “Egrets” traces the journey into the dark interior. The traveler is “hot and wounded” but comes suddenly to an empty pond out of which three egrets rise as “a shower/ of white fire!” She sees that they walk through each moment patiently, without fear, “unruffled, sure/ by the laws/ of their faith not logic,/ they opened their wings/ softly and stepped/ over every dark thing.” In “The Honey Tree,” she boldly ascends into ecstatic joy of the body as a result of the difficult work of acceptance for her other poems. Ecstasy, she writes, results from so long hungering for freedom to be oneself unrestricted by pain of the pain. “Oh, anyone can see/ how I love myself at last!/ how I love the world!”
However, there is mourning for beings who did not survive. “Ghosts” is anelegy for the plains...
(The entire section is 2795 words.)