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Mary Oliver 1935–

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American poet.

The following entry provides an overview of Oliver's career through 1995. See also, Mary Oliver Criticism.

An award-winning poet, Oliver is known for verses that celebrate nature and the lessons it holds. Her work explores with deceptive simplicity the mysteries of life, death, and regeneration. From an early identification with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Oliver has since forged an individual alliance with nature that finds expression in an often rapturous lyricism. Her poems seek and speak of the unexpected beauty in nature, without ignoring its uglier truths.

Biographical Information

Oliver was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935 to Edward William Oliver, a teacher, and Helen M. Vlasak Oliver. She studied at Ohio State University for one year, then moved east to attend Vassar College. Beginning in the early 1950s, Oliver occasionally stayed at Steepletop, the upstate New York farm of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, where she served as an assistant to Millay's sister. Millay's lyrical style and themes influenced Oliver's early work, and Oliver later found an artistic home in rural Provincetown, Massachusetts, just as Millay had. In the early 1980s Oliver served as Mather Visiting Professor at Case Western Reserve University. She went on to become poet in residence at Bucknell University in 1986 and, beginning in 1991, Margaret Banister Writer in Residence at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Major Works

Oliver's first poetry collection, No Voyage, and Other Poems (1963), established her reputation for treating nature in a direct, unsentimental, yet lyrical fashion. Subsequent publications, including Twelve Moons (1980) and American Primitive (1983), found her delving further and further into the natural world for subject matter while pulling farther away from human subjects. Thematically, the poems in these collections unflinchingly face nature and its continuous cycle of life and often vicious death to embrace the stark beauty of this process. Oliver shifted her perspective in Dream Work (1986) to feature certain human-centered themes of personal suffering and the past, including a poem dealing with the Holocaust, but returned in House of Light (1990) to a nature-based focus on isolation from human concerns and assimilation into various aspects and beings of nature. In her first book of prose, A Poetry Handbook (1994), Oliver brought her years of writing experience to bear on a close study of the processes of poetry writing.

Critical Reception

Critics have commended Oliver's poetry for its clarity, simplicity, and descriptive precision. American Primitive, which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, was highly acclaimed for its rendering of familiar objects and places in unique, refreshing ways. Some critics, however, noted that several poems contain, as Carolyne Wright asserted in Prairie Schooner, "conventional imagery and sentiments" that weaken the collection as a whole. Stylistically, critics have noted the lyrical beauty of Oliver's lines and turns of phrase, and the author has found favor for serving up her rapturous visions of nature without lapsing into sentimentality. While some feminist literature compilations have neglected her poetry because of her perceived status as a "woman in nature" poet, other critics have noted that Oliver forges outside of traditional Romantic poetry stereotypes to claim her own individual place in nature poetry. Critics have favorably reviewed A Poetry Handbook as an incisive guide to the mechanics of writing poetry. The book goes beyond mere instruction, said Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, to "connect the conscious mind and the heart."

Principal Works

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No Voyage, and Other Poems (poetry) 1963
The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (poetry) 1972
The Night Traveler (poetry) 1978
Twelve Moons (poetry) 1978
American Primitive (poetry) 1983
Dream Work (poetry) 1986
House of Light (poetry) 1990
New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1992
A Poetry Handbook (nonfiction) 1994
White Pine: Poems & Prose Poems (poetry) 1994

Wallace Kaufman (review date Autumn 1966)

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SOURCE: A review of No Voyage, and Other Poems in Agenda, Vol. 4, Nos. 5 & 6, Autumn, 1966, pp. 58-60.

[Kaufman is an American educator and writer. In the following excerpt, he finds Oliver's poems in No Voyage, and Other Poems to be more personal than the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay.]

In Mary Oliver's poems No Voyage one is tempted to look for the influence of Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially since Miss Oliver was secretary to the poet's sister and lived at the poet's estate. But as any writer knows influence is not so obvious as "What I like I follow".

The person, the mind, in Miss Oliver's poems seems to be a mind with the Millay sensitivity. But she is not cornered by the economics or social conditions that were the warp of so much of Millay's poetry. Miss Oliver's poems are more personal, yet move at a safer distance from the brink of sentimentality. Perhaps it is easier for a good poet to feel sorry for one's society than for one's self.

In tending to her personal life Miss Oliver usually treats herself as just an ordinary human being, though one who is aware of wanting to be more. As she writes one imagines the poet laughing at her subject as an adult laughs at a child dressing in old grown-up clothes and playing house. It is probably not comfortable to see life this way, so of course the poems are not comfortable—psychologically speaking. There are occasional streaks of feminine quaintness in description but over all No Voyage is a very tough minded, clear sighted woman struggling with a real sense of urgency to see some hope in the here and now. For instance these last lines from "The Photograph":

    Ten years away and wondering what to do,
    I search my spirit for some flush of pain.
    But thought by thought the quiet moments fall.
    My heart, my heart is blank as hills of snow!—
    And all time leads us toward that last december …
    I stare upon your crumbling smile and keep you.
    I do not love you now, but I remember.

Carolyne Wright (review date Fall 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of American Primitive, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 59, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 108-112.

[Wright is an American poet and educator. In the following review, she finds in Oliver's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection both stunningly original and cliched elements.]

This sixth volume of poetry by Mary Oliver is deceptively facile in its control of the language of the contemporary free-verse pastoral lyric. The book is often breathtaking—both in its luminous apparent simplicity (in the most successful poems), and in its seemingly narrow avoidance of triteness or flatness at times, especially in the final lines of the dozen or so weaker pieces. Some readers may object to the ordinariness of some poems here: haven't we all read too much of the conventional imagery and sentiments inspired by "Spring" or "May" or "The Roses"? And yet other poems—"Mushrooms," "The Kitten," "An Old Whorehouse," "John Chapman"—are stunning in the fresh ways in which they reveal the essential strangeness of the all-too-readily-taken-for-granted world. It may be odd to say, but I found these poems easy to read—not greatly demanding (as if making great demands on the reader's retrieval system of verbal echoes, literary allusions, and cultural phenomena were always a virtue), yet often amazing in the sudden turn of phrase, the unrehearsed conflation or dovetailing of perception:

     How sometimes everything
     closes up, a painted fan, landscapes and moments
     flowing together until the sense of distance—
     say, between Clapp's Pond and me—
     vanishes, edges slide together
     like the feathers of a wing … ("Clapp's Pond")

Mary Oliver's voice is at once celebratory and elegaic; her subject matter is largely that of the primitive American landscape, the fragile realm in which human passions and needs, and the primordial cycles of nature, still meet and interact:

     I try to remember when time's measure
     painfully chafes, for instance when autumn
     flares out at the last, boisterous and
                      like us longing
     to stay—how everything lives, shifting
 
     from one bright vision to another, forever
     in these momentary pastures. ("Fall Song")

The range of these poems—their movement from Ohio's forests and fields, the speaker's childhood country of the imagination, to Cape Cod's scrub pines, salt estuaries and views of the sea—is reminiscent at times of Roethke's "North American Cycle," although Oliver's voice is less sustained and her poems shorter, given more to immediate sensory experience than to extended meditations upon that experience. Perhaps it would be more accurate to liken her to Williams in her enumeration of sense impressions in short lines broken for dramatic effect:

                                       I
    come down from Red Rock, lips streaked
    black, fingers purple, throat cool, shirt
    full of fernfingers, head full of windy
    whistling. It
 
    takes all day. ("Blackberrles")

Another poem, "The Plum Trees," seems a response of sorts to Williams' famous "This is Just to Say." After a rather obvious play on the etymologies of root-words ("there's nothing / so sensible as sensual inundation") Oliver speaks with the same urgent directness as does Williams' note tacked to the refrigerator:

                   Listen,
      the only way
      to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
 
      into the body first, like small
      wild plums.

But not all these poems are exultant in their "singing in the / heaven of appetite." There is a pervading undertone of loss and resignation to loss, of death and reconciliation to the world's ongoing processes, among which death is merely another turn of the great wheel. As do mushrooms "when they are done being perfect," Oliver knows that we, too, will all eventually "slide back under the shining fields of rain," and she evokes the unstudied beauty of the mushrooms' letting go. Instead of exploiting deformity's media potential, Oliver carries the "perfectly black" stillborn cyclopean kitten into a field and buries it, reminding us, and herself, what it in its perfect color and imperfect form really represents: not hideous error, but the fact that "life is infinitely inventive." Still, she's not entirely comfortable with her consolations, and must reiterate her rationale at poem's end:

      I think I did right to go out alone
      and give it back peacefully, and cover the place
      with the reckless blossoms of weeds.

Again, one thinks of Williams' obsession in Paterson with the "Beautiful Thing," the essence of loveliness persisting in the midst of violence, deformity and death—a loveliness not cosmetically superficial, but indwelling. Other poems address themselves to the flora and fauna of Oliver's surroundings, and evoke a sense of the fragility of species, even if they are not directly threatened by human predation ("Egrets," "Ghosts," "Blossom," "The Fish," "Humpbacks").

Sometimes, however, the poet's elegiac vehicle veers dangerously close to the prosy clichés of "inspirational verse," and disappoints the reader who doesn't need to be told, after the imagery and tone have already implied their messages, that in the Mad River region, for example, "the wounds of the past / are ignored" ("Tecumseh"); or that the realization in "May" of our union with all things is a form of "spiritual honey" and is "as good / as a poem or a prayer"; or that because the wood hen calling her chicks at "Little Sister Pond" is "touching, feeling / good," the speaker and her companion are also "meanwhile / touching, feeling / pretty good / also." In this last example, the enjambments are melodramatic to the point of silliness; the burden of the lines is not sufficiently profound or moving to bear the weighty emphasis that each line break would suggest. Some readers, especially the younger poets among them, may be disheartened by such falls in diction, wondering why they work so hard to make each image, each line, startlingly original and fresh, when (as too frequently happens) a mid-career poet with an established reputation, a battery of jacket blurbs from other "name" poets, and a standing contract with a major publisher, can content herself with the sort of unevenness that would only propel the manuscripts of the "unknowns" back over the transom more rapidly than otherwise. Perhaps it is true that "Suffering"—or at least the uncertainties and vicissitudes of publishing and job seeking—leads to Great Art; but must this truism always have appended the corollary that once the poet has struggled successfully to gain rightful recognition, she (or he) will abandon selectivity and self-criticism, be satisfied with less than earlier work shows her to be capable of? Mary Oliver is less subject to this corollary than many, however, and there are instances in which she employs direct statement or the didactic mode in a way that her readers can both identify with as emotive pronouncement, and assent to as workable poetry:

    To live in this world
 
    you must be able
    to do three things:
    to love what is mortal
    to hold it
 
    against your bones knowing
    your own life depends on it;
    and, when the time comes to let it go,
    to let it go.    ("In Blackwater Woods")

In many of these poems, though, it is evident that the speaker has undergone some very real suffering; the losses referred to are personal and specific, but not subjected to direct autobiographical reportage. Although she could not properly be called a confessional poet, we sense that Oliver has earned the right to inner landscapes in which "the secret name / of every death is life again" ("Skunk Cabbages"). In "University Hospital, Boston," the speaker visits a convalescing loved one, listens to the hopeful (but possibly self-deluded?) prognosis, then stands alone in an empty private room at visit's end, contemplating what the death of the room's previous occupant ("someone … here with a gasping face") and the vanishing of her own beloved, amidst the impenetrable impersonality of the institution, would mean. In "Something," two lovers are very much aware of the voyeur outside their window, but "kiss / anyway"; in the fullness of their joy, they can extend a generosity of sentiment toward their "lonely brother." But then all changes: the voyeur, "a man who can no longer bear his life," commits suicide in the woods; and one of the lovers dies. The bereaved speaker, "no longer young," now "knows what a kiss is worth." In the face of such wisdom that can only be attained too late, Oliver offers no easy consolation: life goes on for the living, and time continues "reasonable and bloodless" in spite of the mourner's grief and need for something, anything, even if it be only "the dark wound / of watching"—vicarious or remembered fulfillment.

American Primitive most nearly warrants its title and its evocation of Williams in the poems that focus on the history of this country and its losses—primarily those of the Native Americans of Ohio's Mad River region ("Tecumseh") or of the pioneers who eventually displaced them ("The Lost Children"). The most fully realized of these poems for me is "John Chapman," the legal name of Johnny Appleseed, whom American folk legend has elevated into a sort of secular, arboreal-specific Saint Francis. Oliver's poem gains ironic depth by demythologizing the man who lived unharmed among Indians, settlers, and wild beasts, who had "apple trees [spring] up behind him lovely / as young girls." The trite simile here is ironically deliberate: we soon learn that despite Appleseed-the-hero's ostensible rendering of honor to "all God's creatures!" Chapman-the-man harbors fellow-feeling for all but the female of his own species:

      Mrs. Price, late of Richland County,
      at whose parents' house he sometimes lingered,
      recalled: he spoke
      only once of women and his gray eyes
      bristled into ice. "Some
      are deceivers," he whispered, and she felt
      the pain of it, remembered it
      into old age.

But the young woman (perhaps secretly attracted to her parents' guest?) who never forgets the force of Chapman's misogyny is an exception. Like so many from the realms of Paul Bunyan, George Washington and the Cherry Tree, and the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Chapman's human faults have been glossed over in history's canonization; he has become "the good legend," but his secrets and his pain have also left their mark on America:

                       In spring, in Ohio,
      in the forests that are left you can still find
      sign of him: patches
      of cold white fire.

This is a book that we can read quickly, and therefore we run the risk of missing a great deal of it. It can also grow on us, unobtrusively—like the silence of the few forests left—and remind us that surface flash is not as enduring as "the unseen, the unknowable / center" toward which Mary Oliver's poetry is directed. American Primitive has won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984; it is an award that the poet's work to date certainly merits.

Alicia Ostriker (review date 30 August 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Dream Work, in The Nation, Vol. 243, No. 5, August 30, 1986, pp. 148-150.

[Ostriker is an American poet, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt, she applauds the lyricism of Dream Work and notes a shift in emphasis from the natural world in Oliver's earlier works to more human-based themes in this collection.]

Where [Donald] Hall's line is classically conversational and descriptive, Mary Oliver's is intensely lyrical, flute-like, slender and swift. Where he gathers detail, she will fling gesture. Her poems ride on vivid phrases: "the click of claws, the smack of lips" outside her tent turns out to be a bear's "shambling tonnage" in "The Chance to Love Everything." In a poem about an oncoming storm emblematic of human disaster, "the wind turns / like a hundred black swans / and the first faint noise / begins." She dreams the memory of past lives in the Amazonian landscape of "The River," a poem of the soul's birth and rebirth:

      Once among the reeds I found
      a boat, as thin and lonely
      as a young tree. Nearby
      the forest sizzled with the afternoon rain.

Behind Oliver's New England is Ohio—not the sorry Ohio of James Wright, but a frontier still untouched by cultivation and corruption, where you enter to find "your place / in the family of things," with a real hope of success if you work hard. Woodland and marsh are Oliver's kingdom, animals and plants her kin and alternative selves. There are some dazzling poems of deer, bear, geese, turtle, of trilliums and sunflowers. She is as visionary as Emerson, and is among the few American poets who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey, "the rapacious / plucking up the timid / like so many soft jewels."

Quite a number of the poems contain advice that is both right enough and rooted enough to be called (it's an old-fashioned term) wisdom. "Dogfish," the opening poem of Dream Work, describes a dogfish with its chin "rough / as a thousand sharpened nails," coming in on the tide:

     And look! look! look! I think those little fish
     better wake up and dash themselves away
     from the hopeless future that is
     bulging toward them.
 
     And probably,
     if they don't waste time
     looking for an easier world,
 
     they can do it.

"One or Two Things" hovers between the mobility of a butterfly and the poet's own immobility, which feels to her like an iron hoof she can't lift from the center of her mind unless she has "an idea." The poem concludes:

     For years and years I struggled
     just to love my life. And then
 
     the butterfly
     rose, weightless, in the wind.
     "Don't love your life
     too much," it said,
 
     and vanished
     into the world.

Dream Work, coming after Oliver's 1984 Pulitzer-Prize-winning American Primitive, is an advance on her earlier writing in two ways, which are probably connected. Formally, her verse feels increasingly confident, smoother, and thus bolder—the work of someone able to take risks, take corners faster. At the same time she has moved from the natural world and its desires, the "heaven of appetite" that goes on without much intervention or possibility of control, further into the world of historical and personal suffering. In a half dozen or so poems she sketches a past burdened by trauma and breakdown, the temptation to die, the resolution to recover, the actual work of insisting on sanity: "I began to take apart / the deep stitches / of nightmares." In one poem the poet makes herself walk away, though the night is wild, from voices crying "Mend my life!" In another she is building a larger house, a daily labor.

She confronts as well, steadily, what she cannot change. In the climactic piece of Dream Work, a meditation on the Holocaust, there are two adjacent pictures linked by a half-refrain. "Oh, you never saw / such a good leafy place" introduces an anecdote about meeting a fawn while walking with her dog; neither fawn nor dog knew "what dogs usually do," so they "did a little dance, / they didn't get serious." Then the line "Oh, you never saw such a garden!" brings a new picture, a Jamesian scene of a hundred kinds of flowers, cool shade, garden furniture and a man peacefully finishing lunch and lifting wine in a glass of "real crystal"—but "It is the face of Mengele." At the end of this poem the people have gone and the doe enters, sniffing the air where her fawn has been: "Then she knew everything." In her own garden of knowledge Mary Oliver moves by instinct, faith and determination. She is among our finest poets, and still growing.

Lisa M. Steinman (essay date Spring 1987)

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SOURCE: "Dialogues Between History and Dream," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 428-38.

[In the following review, Steinman finds an "almost romantic lyricism" in Dream Work that floats over a deeper personal perspective of the past.]

Mary Oliver's Dream Work, the last book reviewed here, stands out when placed next to the three books discussed above [The Happy Man, by Donald Hall, The Walls of Thebes, by David R. Slavitt, and Thomas and Beulah, by Rita Dove], precisely because it seems to take no notice of any past or history. True, the cover of one of Oliver's earlier volumes, The Night Traveler, showed a portrait of Virgil; but even there Oliver's Virgil came by way of Blake. Dream Work, in fact, opens with the poem "Dogfish" in which Oliver writes: "I wanted / the past to go away, I wanted / to leave it, like another country." Later in the same poem, the personal past is similarly discarded: "You don't want to hear the story / of my life, and anyway / I don't want to tell it, I want to listen / to the enormous waterfalls of the sun." As in American Primitive, there is a sort of trick here. In the earlier volume, the apparently unself-conscious celebrations of the present and of the natural world, presented as if in a picture with no perspective or depth, are quite self-consciously entitled primitives. In Dream Work, the past rejected is nonetheless felt loitering under the surface of many of the poems.

Yet in both volumes Oliver's best poems are those of an almost romantic lyricism. There are more references in Dream Work to the nightmare side of vision, to "the dark heart of the story" ("The Chance to Love Everything"), or to "the dark song / of the morning" after a night in which, we are told, "in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, / and dreams do not lie" ("Rage"). But despite the number of times darkness is mentioned, the dark is less detailed, less fully imagined, and less convincing than Oliver's primary subject, namely visionary experiences. If Slavitt's response to a flight of birds is to step back and explain he does not believe in redemption, here is Oliver on "Wild Geese":

      Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
      the world offers itself to your imagination,
      calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and excitng—
      over and over announcing your place
      in the family of things.

One might mistrust such epiphanic moments, wishing perhaps that Oliver had a bit more of Hall's restraint and a bit less of this yearning to merge with the world. Yet the poetry, in the iambs, in the careful mixture of statement and image, avoids sentimentality and is, in the final analysis, deeply moving. Here, in an epiphany built of the loss of such moments, is another equally powerful passage, from "Whispers":

     Have you ever
     tried to
     slide into
     the heaven of sensation and met
 
     you know not what
     resistance but it
     held you back?

The poem ends:

     … have you stood,
 
     staring out over the swamps, the swirling rivers
     where the birds like tossing fires
     flash through the trees, their bodies
     exchanging a certain happiness
 
     in the sleek amazing
     humdrum of nature's design—
     … to which
     you cannot belong?

This is clearly not the humdrum world that most of us inhabit; there is no sign of Hall's Martha Bates Dudley and Mr. Wakeville, of Slavitt's eye tests, newspapers and books, or of Dove's couple, living through the Depression and company picnics. The other poets reviewed here let other people into their poetry, people who live and have jobs in a recognizable world. Oliver's more solitary landscapes are not even wholly of the natural world. As with romantic poetry generally, Oliver's "world" is centered in the self, or in the self's quests. "The Journey" admits:

     … there was a new voice,
     which you slowly
     recognized as your own,
     that kept you company
     as you strode deeper and deeper
     into the world,
                  ....
     determined to save
     the only life you could
     save.

Finally, the world into which Oliver descends is not the physical world these poems at first appear to celebrate. Dream Work is notable in part because it explicitly acknowledges that sensuality is not what Oliver is after. In American Primitive, perhaps disingenuously, Oliver wrote: "the only way / to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it / into the body first" ("The Plum Trees"). In Dream Work, we read: "The spirit / likes to dress up … it needs / the metaphor of the body" ("Poem," emphasis added). It is admirable that Dream Work maintains the visionary lyricism of American Primitive while going on to examine its premises like this.

There are many ways in which Oliver's poems are the most immediately compelling of those reviewed here. And yet, by contrast, if Slavitt's over-explanatory discursiveness is irksome at times, it also seems to stem in part from an honest and tough-minded recognition, which we also admire, of what it means to be romantically inclined in 1986. The high romantic vein has always risked losing the world. For many of us, the poetry we want now will have to come (to borrow a phrase) from poets of reality. And we feel we have such poets when we read the way the seemingly unpoetic lives and language of Dove's couple or of Hall's awkwardly named, and precisely realized, individuals (Felix, Merle, Harvey) are given a place in poetry without being wrenched from history. At the same time, Oliver's poetry strikes a deep and seductive chord. It is, to quote Donald Hall from an early BBC interview, a poetry "that, if you leave yourself open to the language of dreams, is open to everyone…. You need not translate anything … you have to float on it." Perhaps, after all, the dialogue between history and dream—and between community and self—that we find when these poets are read together is what we really want from poetry.

Sandra M. Gilbert (review date May 1987)

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SOURCE: "Six Poets in Search of a History," in Poetry, Vol. 150, No. 2, May, 1987, pp. 113-16.

[Gilbert is an American editor, educator, and critic. In the following review, she applauds Oliver for mining the natural world to "learn the lessons of survival."]

Compared to [Gail] Mazur's work, Mary Oliver's poems are deliberately impersonal, almost anti-confessional. Yet she too is haunted by history, by the private history of the oppressive father who is the subject of "Rage" ("in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, / and dreams do not lie") and by the public history of the holocaust that is the subject of "1945–1985: Poem for the Anniversary," the history of Germany's "iron claw, which won't / ever be forgotten, which won't / ever be understood, but which did, / slowly, for years, scrape across Europe." Unlike the other poets in this group, however, Oliver finds a way to escape the rigors of human chronicles through attention to natural history. In doing so, she follows in the footsteps of such precursors as D. H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop, all of whom, at various times and in different modes, celebrated the intransigent otherness of birds, beasts, and flowers—of moose and jerboa, of snake and pomegranate and tortoise—in order to learn the lessons of survival taught by what Moore called "the simplified creature."

To my mind, Oliver is the most skillful of the six poets I am treating here: she is a writer who is never less than expert in her crafting of verse and her precision of language. Once in a while, the sense of structure that invariably leads her to point poems toward neat (and often brilliant) closures betrays her into excessive abstraction, even sententiousness, as in the ending of "Starfish," where "I lay on the rocks, reaching / into the darkness, learning / little by little to love / our only world." But for the most part, her poems are wonderfully shapely, and there appears to be a connection between the aesthetic attentiveness that produces these elegantly articulated forms and their scrupulous anchoring in natural facts, in keen awareness of the history of lives that are other than human.

This is not to say, however, that Oliver is in any sense anti- or inhuman; on the contrary, like Mazur's, her voice is warmly human and open, even when, like Barnard, she is confronting the icy mystery of the constellations. I quote her "Orion" in its entirety:

      I love Orion, his fiery body, his ten stars,
      his flaring points of reference, his shining dogs.
      "It is winter," he says.
      "We must eat," he says. Our gloomy
      and passionate teacher.
                            Miles below
      in the cold woods, with the mouse and the owl,
      with the clearness of water sheeted and hidden,
      with the reason for the wind forever a secret,
      he descends and sits with me, his voice
      like the snapping of bones.
                                       Behind him,
      everything is so black and unclassical; behind him
      I don't know anything, not even
      my own mind.

Still, impressive as this poem is, the pieces that impress me the most in Oliver's new collection are the ones in which—like Lawrence, Moore, and Bishop—she meditates on the alternative consciousness, the being in a perpetual present, that might liberate the lives of plants and animals from what human beings experience as the burden of the past.

In "The Turtle," for instance, Oliver broods (as Lawrence once did) on the reproductive imperative that drives the shelled creature, laying her eggs:

     She's only filled
     with an old blind wish.
     It isn't even hers but came to her
     in the rain or the soft wind,
     which is a gate through which her life keeps
     walking.

Again, in "Landscape," this poet looks at crows who

     … break off from the rest of the darkness
     and burst up into the sky—as though
 
     all night they had thought of what they would like
     their lives to be, and imagined
     their strong, thick wings.

And in "Black Snakes," she engages, as Lawrence did in "Snake," the fearful yet historically sacred otherness of the reptile. Looking with Lawrentian awe at two terrifying snakes, Oliver confesses that

     … Once I had steadied,
     I thought: how valiant!
     and I wished
     I had come softly, I wished
     they were my dark friends.

It is, of course, daring, indeed risky, to rewrite Lawrence like this, as risky as it is for Mazur to rewrite Lowell. But to Oliver's credit she mostly brings the project off, perhaps because she not only revises but reshapes Lawrence, drawing on his poetical honesty while repudiating his political eccentricity. "The Sunflowers," the closing poem in her collection, moralizes delicately on the other history we can learn from natural history. Beginning with a casual, friendly invitation—"Come with me / into the field of sunflowers. / Their faces are burnished disks, / their dry spines // creak like ship masts"—the piece moves toward a conclusion that summarizes the philosophy of history which might be said to underlie Dream Work:

      Don't be afraid
       to ask them questions!
          Their bright faces,
 
      which follow the sun,
       will listen, and all
         those rows of seeds—
          each one a new life!—
 
      hope for a deeper acquaintance;
        each of them, though it stands
         in a crowd of many,
           like a separate universe,
 
      is lonely, the long work
       of turning their lives
          into a celebration
            is not easy. Come
 
      and let us talk with those modest faces,
       the simple garments of leaves,
         the coarse roots in the earth
           so uprightly burning.

Of course, Blake stands behind this poem, too, Blake whose sunflower was "weary of time" and yearned "after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller's journey is done." But for Oliver, evidently, there is no chance of the journey being "done"; the journey is a difficult voyage toward celebration, and history is the history of survival. Rather than being "weary of time," Mary Oliver implies, we should, with Mary Barnard, be glad of time's dispensations and benedictions—blessings which allow us to reimagine history not as a nightmare from which we are trying to awake but as a story of "coarse roots in the earth / so uprightly burning."

Mary Oliver (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Some Thoughts on the Line," in The Ohio Review, Vol. 38, 1987, pp. 41-6.

[In the following essay, Oliver discusses the mechanics of poetry and how length and tone variations can result in a wide range of effects.]

1.

All manner of effects can be realized by the choices one makes concerning the line, and all choices are determined from a norm point, iambic pentameter.

The iamb is the paramount sound in any string of English words, thus it is the most fluid and natural sound. The pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our lungs, and is thus the line most suitable to our verse. By suitable I mean it fits without stress and yet makes a full phrase, so it gives off no particular message. It is the norm.

All deviations from the norm do emit messages. Excitement of all kinds, with its accompanying physical and psychic tension, "takes our breath"; any line shorter than pentameter indicates this. The reader is brought to attention as the shorter line reveals a situation which is in some way out of the ordinary. Tetrameter can release a felt agitation or restlessness, or on the other hand a gaiety, more easily and "naturally" than pentameter, and so on.

The longer line (longer than five feet) suggests a greater-than-human power. It can seem by its simple endurance—beyond ordinary lung capacity—grandiose, or prophetic. It can also indicate abundance, richness, a sense of joy. Underlying whatever freight of language (statement) it carries, it emits a sense of an unstoppable machine.

In free as in metered verse, a feeling of reliability and cohesion is important. In the opening lines of a piece—with whatever length of line and predominant kind of line-breaks or line-turns—an initial mood is created. Once this is set, the reader has a right to expect that the general tone and mood, created by these mechanical selections, will continue—or will change only for a purpose essential to the poem.

When the poet uses previous models (sonnets, blank verse, etc.), he or she is in charge of the arrangement of words and sounds within each line, and a rhyme scheme if it is called for, but the form dictates each turn. In the free-flowing, unmodelled poem, each turn is made according to the effects which the poet wants to achieve. Of these decisions, measurable length is only one. The point in syntax at which the line turns is another.

At the end of each line there exists—inevitably—a brief pause. This pause is part of the motion of the poem, as hesitation is part of dance. With it, the poet can do several things. Say the line is self-enclosed—not a sentence necessarily, but a phrase which is entire in terms of syntax, a logical unity. Here the pause works as an instant of inactivity, in which the reader is "invited" to weigh the information and pleasure of the line.

When the poet on the other hand enjambs the line—breaks syntax by turning the line before the phrase is complete at a natural point—it speeds the line for two reasons—curiosity about the missing part of the phrase impels the reader to hurry on, and the reader will hurry twice as fast over the obstacle of the pause because it is there—we leap with more energy over a ditch than over no ditch.

A third possibility is to repeat one type of line (say the self-enclosed) a number of times. Each line reinforces the reader's pace. A trusted rhythm, that primal pleasure, is swiftly achieved and the change, when it occurs, is therefore all the stronger.

Other or additional effects are achieved by the end sound at the point of turning. Feminine endings try to blur the pause; masculine endings are forthright; mute-ended words slam a gate.

Complete units of logic or syntax make use of the pause as indicated above, with additional resonances playing off the aura of certainty which attaches to complete statements and the incantatory spell which comes from repeated gestures or rhythms of any sort. This mood asserts itself even if the lines are phrased as questions—when the conclusion of the line matches the conclusion of the sentence, authority is released.

All these mechanical selections, it seems to me, work as described. They are not magical of course, but illusionary. They are not the poem, but its crafty underpinnings.

2.

The tone of many contemporary lyric poems is that of personal disclosure. Person to person, the poet is talking to someone—often to you, the reader. Intimately, intensely, and smoothly. This being so, the sense of movement is crucial, and the poems flow on without a rattle—the line-turns are often chosen for important but small effects, like the changes of expression in conversation.

During the period when James Wright was letting books of bad poetry fall behind stones, when he and Robert Thy and others were investigating the "deep image," Wright's work changed significantly, as we know. Speaking now only of the mechanics of his changed work, I wonder if Wright did not discover during this time that a certain kind of language—heard all one's life but dismissed out-of-hand as anti-poetry exactly because it was so much a part of "real life"—could be incorporated with startling effect into the poem. I am thinking of such passages as the following:

     I am hungry. In two more days
     It will be spring. So this
     Is what it feels like.
            ("Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store")

Or the seemingly casual, vernacular opening to "Northern Pike":

    All right. Try this,
    Then. Every body
    I know and care for,
    And every body
    Else is going
    To die …

Or this passage:

     I had nothing to do with it. I was not here.
     I was not born.
     In 1862, when your hotheads
     Raised hell from here to South Dakota,
     My own fathers scattered into West Virginia
     And southern Ohio.
     My family fought the Confederacy
     And fought the Union.
     None of them got killed.
     But for all that, it was not my fathers
     Who murdered you.
     Not much.
 
                  ("A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862")

Here is a winging back and forth between the manufactured literary line, and the simple, even humble, cadence of vernacular speech. Clearly the word "scattered" is a literary choice, and its appearance reminds us that this is not a conversation though it sounds like one—it is still that formal thing, a poem. Yet the whole passage "works" because of the final two words, which are certainly not poetry—except in the context of the passage. What is forceful and gives pleasure is not just the use of the vernacular but its transformation. The unassuming phrase, as familiar to us as our own name, is worked into the mechanical structure and literary body of the poem, it is resurrected; it is changed utterly.

The conversational tone is not without precedent. "I will teach you my townspeople how to hold a funeral," wrote William Carlos Williams, and a lot else besides which displays an affinity, with rather than a difference from ordinary American speech, and thus invites us to listen with a natural rather than a separate kind of attention.

And now, what has happened to the line? It would be the devil's task to indicate strong and light stresses through the last quotation from Wright. The third sentence, the one containing "scattered," is fairly easy. But the others, difficult to scan, show different characteristics. So many words of one syllable, so much caesura, so many spondees. The rhythm is gone, the tension is all one stroke. By the old rules there is no determined result to such a line. We sense only a mood of intensity, and import. It is the unpretentious turned rhetorical, it is rhetoric that has unfolded as naturally as a leaf. It stretches the listening ear in a new way.

     My brother comes home from work
     and climbs the stairs to our room.
     I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
     one by one. You can have it, he says.
                          ("You Can Have It")

Here is a more recent example from a poem by Philip Levine, a wonderful example because of the tightness of the stanza in which the final phrase blurts forth with utter weariness and yet uncommon resonance. We are being told a story, mostly in the cadence of iambs with no more variation than speech naturally holds; but the spondees in line three prepare us, though we don't know it, for the sustained almost unscannable effect of the fourth line, in which there is no emphasis, but the totality of gut eloquence.

What Wright did so often and so well I see practiced in many recent poems. I sometimes hear from poets (and am not without the feeling myself) of their wish to speak less personally and more on behalf of the "people entire." Whoever that is. It is an interesting and difficult wish, and without easy solution. The use of vernacular phrases, I imagine, is connected to this ambiguous but restless desire.

Additionally, I think the poetry reading has had a real influence on the line, and especially the kind of line I have been describing. As a matter of course the poet now takes on the role of reader as well as writer. In my experience, the audience finds great pleasure in poems which so use our "real language," and the poet of course senses this. The academic audience is stirred by something different, the more general audience is moved by phrases so familiar and yet infused with new energy.

And what does one hope the words on the page will be, as the eight o'clock reading begins? Not only an indication of what to say, but of how to say it. The vernacular line—which in truth is more spoken than read—is apt to appear on the page in just that way. And line-breaks on the page which will work for reading poems aloud will work that way for the attentive silent reader also. Through the many possibilities of craft, the poem comes into its careful existence. And certainly the poet these days may thrill us still with finery, but just as likely with the simple cloth of plain speech which, in the conflagration of the poem, has also caught fire.

Jean B. Alford (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Mary Oliver: Modern Renewal Through Mortal Acceptance," in Pembroke Magazine, Vol. 20, 1988, pp. 283-88.

[In the following essay, Alford discusses the positive, life-affirming aspects that Oliver's poetry uncovers in nature.]

Mary Oliver is a distinctive poet in the fashionably surreal and escapist world of contemporary verse. The message and craft of her poetry are valued by peers and critics alike despite her unfortunate neglect as potential critical review. According to Hyatt H. Waggoner, she lacks the representative qualities associated with contemporary aesthetic values. However, her real worth as a modern poet lies in these very atypical qualities. Representative contemporary poets gloomily doom modern man and his life in apprehensive responses to present political, social, economic, and moral uncertainties. Oliver instead passionately affirms their survival. Within them both, she exalts the natural—an inherently renewing and regenerative potential.

The theme of Oliver's poetry is revitalization. Through self-conscious denial, modern man must reconnect his roots with the natural cycles and processes of all life. As Oliver's poems engross the reader in a fully sensual union with nature, she urges him to recognize the universal joys, pains, beauties, and terrors experienced in such connectedness. She then celebrates his transforming potential—the loving acceptance of his mortality in the human and natural worlds.

Oliver's poetic technique will not be examined in this discussion. It is important to note, however, that it too is in keeping with her different contemporary stance. Rather than adopt the surreal escapism and the personal confessions of many peers, she uses the traditional lyric form to embrace her readers emotionally and intellectually. Her meticulous craft and her skilled use of language create poems that are seemingly effortless, sensual delights. She combines rich, musical lyrics with swift, taut meters; she uses illuminating images that seldom startle; and she produces a confident, yet graceful and serene, tone. According to Anthony Manousos, Oliver's craft is deceptively simple—an emotional intensity that speaks clearly and directly to the reader. More appropriately, James Dickey characterizes it as remarkable, creating richly complex poetry without throwing complexities in the way of the reader.

An analysis of Oliver's poetic message reveals that she begins her positive affirmation by seeking to reconnect modern man to his roots in the natural processes of all life. According to Waggoner, rather than despairing over the current separation and alienation of contemporary life, Oliver searches memory and present experiences. Through the world of nature, she finds those intrinsic meanings and values which can be retrieved, embraced anew, and celebrated in the modern world. To Manousos, then, her exploration of the natural world and its cycles elicits concurrent themes analogous to those which are deepest and most enduring in human experience.

In Twelve Moons, especially, Oliver celebrates the natural cycles of birth, decay, and death as flourishing in all life. More important, though, she reveals the companion dreams that motivate and drive the mortal existence. In "The Fish," Oliver compares the salmon's exhaustive and painful battle upstream to reach her "old birth pond" with the efforts of "any woman come to term, caught / as mortality drives triumphantly toward / immortality / the shaken bones like/ cages of fire". "Stark County Holidays" describes a Christmas family reunion as the narrator's awareness of her mother's "wintering" decay; though the musical dream and desire persist, the "stiffened hands" on the "blasted scales" ensure that seasonally "the promise fades." In "The Black Snake," the reptile found dead in the roadway is thrown into the bushes as "looped and useless as an old bicycle tire." Yet, it is remembered as "cool and gleaming as a braided whip," imbued with the "brighter fire" of all nature which "… says to oblivion: not me!"

Oliver identifies within these life cycles the continuous elements of change, sensual pleasure, and love. She reveals that they not only accompany the companion dreams but also necessarily involve experiencing both pain and pleasure. In "Two Horses," Jack and Racket are wished from death into "Elysian fields … without fences" but realistically and sadly recognized as changed like all of life in "two graves big as cellar holes / At the bottom of the north meadow." In "Worm Moon," the death of winter changes joyfully into spring's "love match that will bring forth fantastic children / … who will believe, for years, / that everything is possible." Celebrating sensual pleasure in "Looking for Mushrooms," the poetic persona perceives the hunt and capture of the delectable "salvo of the forest" as "rich / and romping on the tongue" for man and beast alike. Yet, in the "Bone Poem" that follows, as she comes upon the "rat litter" at the bottom of the owl's tree, she recognizes the owl's most recent sensual delight not only as being part of the eternal food chain but also as eventually dissolving "back to the center" where "the rat will learn to fly, the owl / will be devoured." And, Oliver celebrates motherly love in both the human and animal world. In "Snow Moon—Black Bear Gives Birth," the mother bear washes and snuggles her newborn, gives them the "rich river" of her nipples, and thus establishes each one as "an original." A mother's love changes, though, from joy to a pain that "lashes out with a cutting edge" in "Strawberry Moon." Elizabeth Fortune is not only left by "the young man / full of promises, and the face of the moon / a white fire" but also separated from the child born out of wedlock, being forced by society to "climb in the attic."

As Oliver celebrates the themes of birth, decay, death, dreams, change, sensual pleasure, and love, she asserts their equal and certain existence for both man and animal. In fact, she assures modern man of his survival because he is part of the natural world and its rejuvenating potential. This assurance, though, includes the experience of beauty, joy, and sensual pleasure as well as that of mystery, terror, and pain.

According to Joyce Carol Oates, Oliver relates these experiences to an essential tension and loneliness man experiences as he lives simultaneously in two worlds—the personal, familial, human world and the inhuman, impersonal, natural world. Within the human world, man essentially struggles alone to find a sense of identity, peace, and immortality. In the poem "John Chapman," an eccentric, anti-social old man of the Ohio forests becomes a "good legend" by planting and giving away apple trees. He decides not to die to "the secret, and the pain" of unrequited love but "to live, to go on caring about something." In "Dreams," the narrator compares a single rain-swollen creek's rushing drive and desire for "a new life in a new land / where vines tumble thick as shipropes, / The ferns grow tall as trees!" to two pioneering greatuncles who got lost in Colorado looking for the good life. With "pounding heart and pride," she celebrates them as "full of hope and vision; / … healthy as animals, and rich / as their dreams …"—at peace and immortalized before they died alone.

Manousos suggests that Oliver then counterbalances man's dream of immortality with man's struggle to survive mortality—his subjection to increasingly waning natural powers after birth. In "Ice," the narrator painfully acknowledges her father's feverish distribution of ice grips as an attempt in his "last winter" to "… be welcomed and useful—/ … Not to be sent alone over the black ice." In "The Garden," the speaker pities the wealthy, good-mannered, defiant woman who spends her life alone working three gardeners around the clock to keep "the wilderness at bay." In the end, this self-sufficient matron terrifyingly discovers her wasted effort and struggle and loss—"how powerless she was / … like the least of us grew old and weedy. / Felt her mind crumble … / Heard the trees thicken as they stumbled toward her / And set their cracking weight upon her bones."

To Oliver, the reconciliation of man's desire for immortality and his experience of mortality depends on his willingness to recognize them as polarities. According to A. Poulin, Jr., the essential tension between them in Oliver's poetry "… defines the boundaries of all experience—whether in the physical world, in the realm of human relationships, or in the self." In her poems, she equates this reconciliation with the very sense of connectedness she celebrates in Twelve Moons, a unity existing between the human and natural worlds. Through a personal psychic journey, man must deny and eliminate the self-conscious "I" that seeks immortality and open his sensual perception to the mortal kinship between the human and the natural.

In "Entering the Kingdom," the narrator expresses her desire to negate the "I" and become one with nature—"the dream of my life / Is to lie down by a slow river / And stare at the light in the trees—/ To learn something of being nothing / A little while but the rich / Lens of attention." In "Blackleaf Swamp," she asks whether being human negates her being "part bird, part beast" and queries if so, "… why does a wing in the air / Sweep against my blood / Like a sharp oar?" After her study of "darkness and trees and water," she confidently concludes that such selfless communion with nature "feels like the love of my mother." In "The Plum Trees," as the poetic persona explores the sensual inundation of eating summer plums, she celebrates the "sensibility" or critical importance of increased sensual perception. For her, "joy / is a taste before / it's anything else …" and "the only way to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it / into the body first, like small / wild plums." According to Manousos, Oliver's vision of man's sensual union with nature becomes celebratory and religious in the deepest sense. In "The Fawn," the worshipper questions "what is holiness?" as she succumbs not to the ringing church bells but "to the woods instead," calling "blessed" a momentary touching of spirits between herself and a newborn fawn.

The results of a psychic journey which elevates man's sensual perception above his self-consciousness are still polar—eliciting both joy and pleasure, pain and terror. As man recognizes the oneness of all forms of life, he joyfully experiences glimpses of immortality and eternity. In "Pink Moon the Pond," Oliver celebrates this moment:

     … the soul rises from your bones
     and strides out over the water …
     not even noticing
     You are something else …
     And that's when it happens—
     You see everything
     through their eyes,
     their joy, their necessity …
     And that's when you know
     You will live whether you will or not,
     one way or another,
     because everything is everything else,
     one long muscle.

Man finally sees his immortality as a self-denying mortal life in communion with the eternal processes of nature.

When man acknowledges his mortal participation in the natural cycles of life, he is also terrified by nature's total disregard for the individual, whether prey or predator. According to Oates, Oliver, in "Winter in the Country," reveals the natural world's refusal to divide individuals or creatures into victims or oppressors. The narrator states, "the terror of the country / Is not the easy death …" but "Is prey and hawk together, / still flying, both exhausted, / In the blue sack of weather." Oliver insists that man must also take his place in this frightening, unsentimental, unpoliticized natural world, for he too is subject to waning natural powers. In "Farm Country," the speaker criticizes the view that "life is chicken soup." She urges man to act as decisively and realistically as the farm wife does—"sharpening her knives, putting on the heavy apron and boots, crossing the lawn, and entering the hen house."

Because of this elevated yet terrifying sensual perception, man can be potentially renewed. When he denies the superiority of his own self-consciousness and acceptingly connects his own mortality to the world around him, he is different. No longer is he the "cruel but honest" one in "Cold Poem." Such a man keeps "… alive … taking one after another / the necessary bodies of others, the many / crushed red flowers" Neither can he be a part of the dispassionate news audience in "Beyond the Snow Belt." They "forget with ease each far mortality" because "… except as we have loved. / All news arrives as from a distant land."

Instead, contemporary man can be more loving, caring, and sensitive as he participates in his environment. His potential exists as surely as that of the narrator's ancestors in "Stark Boughs on the Family Tree." They "built great barns and propped their lives / Upon a slow heartbreaking care" as "they left the small / Accomplished, till the great was done." Like the niece in "Aunt Mary," he may even long to know the hidden spirit of one so loud and fat. As he views the skinny child in the family album "… in a time before her glands / Grew wild as pumps, and fleshed her to a joke," he may even lament her death, learning "how wise we grow, / Just as the pulse of things slips from the hand."

As a different person, modern man can also recognize that facing, coping, and adapting to life's trials and disappointments are the only means of gaining inward peace and self-identity. In "No Voyage," Oliver documents the human tendency to run away from the pain and unpleasantness experienced in life. The poem's narrator insists on the necessity to "inherit from disaster before I move / … To sort the weeping ruins of my house; / Here or nowhere I will make peace with the fact." To Oliver, as nature learns, so must man. In "Storm," as the speaker seeks shelter from a deadly heaven "full of spitting snow," she marvels at "deer lying / In the pine groves," "foxes plunging home," "crows plump / As black rocks in cold trees." She concludes that "what saves them is thinking that dying / Is only floating away into / The life of the snow"—accepting their place and time in the natural cycle of life and fulfilling the complete potential of their being.

Poulin believes that the acceptance of the hard truths of mortal existence is epiphany for Oliver as well as for modern man himself—the essential nature or meaning of life. In "Blackwater Wood," she asserts that living productively today is dependent on three measures of acceptance by man:

      to love what is mortal;
      to hold it
 
      against your bones knowing
      your own life depends on it;
      and, when the time comes to let it go,
      to let it go.

To Oliver, man's inward struggles to be immortal through art, work, or love do not cancel mortal existence but rather create a fleeting sense of stay. In "Music Lessons," when the teacher takes over the piano, "sound becomes music" that flees "all tedious bonds: / supper, the duties of flesh and home, / the knife at the throat, the death in the metronome." The grand finale, though, is only a momentary transformation.

Contemporary man's acceptance of his mortality will benefit daily living in productive encounters of love, caring, and understanding. It allows him to look beyond the self to view death as in harmony with the recreative processes of nature In "The Kitten," the narrator believes that she "did right" to give the stillborn "with one large eye / in the center of its small forehead" back peacefully to nature rather than to a museum. For she asserts, "life is infinitely inventive. / saying what other arrangements / lie in the dark seed of the earth …" In "University Hospital, Boston," a family member reconciles the dying of a loved one. While she tells him "you are better," she sees other beds "made all new, / the machines … rolled away…." And, she acknowledges, "… the silence / continues. deep and neutral, as I stand there, loving you"

The acceptance of the hard truths of mortality also provides a reforming perspective on daily dying—the progressive inward death of one's self-consciousness. As Oliver celebrates in "Sleeping in the Forest," such daily extinctions allow man to "vanish into something better." In "Sharks," as the narrator describes swimmers too soon forgetting the lifeguard's warning, she asserts: "… life's winners are not the rapacious but the patient; / What triumphs and takes new territory / has learned to lie for centuries in the shadows / like the shadows of the rocks."

Oliver's poetry, then, reminds modern man that accepting the dire consequences of mortal existence through a heightened sensual perception takes time and patience. It does not come easily like an automatic reflex but rather develops through a slow, painful transformation of self to selflessness. Its rewards, however, are as delectable and exciting as the red fox's appearance in "Tasting the Wild Grapes"—"lively as the dark thorns of the wild grapes / on the unsuspecting tongue!"

Thus reviewed is the poetry of Mary Oliver—contemporarily non-representative, positive, traditional, conservative, deceptively simple, complex without throwing complexities in the way of the reader. As a modern poet, she is both distinctive and worthwhile. In her meticulous craft and loving insight into what endures in both the human and natural worlds, she gives us all not only hope but also the potential for salvation—a modern renewal through mortal acceptance.

Greg Kuzma (review date Spring 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of Dream Work, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 63, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 111-12.

[Kuzma is an American poet. In the following review of Dream Work, he praises Oliver's "purity of motive" in expressing the gracefulness of nature.]

Mary Oliver's Dream Work sees in the earth everywhere evidence of a profound satisfaction. "Each pond," she tells us, "with its blazing lilies / is a prayer heard and answered …" ("Morning Poem") or "The sea / isn't a place / but a fact, and / a mystery …" ("The Waves"). In all her various acts of defining or saying precisely what she knows, it is the earth's fact and mystery and beauty she is moving toward, a limit, a perfection. It is wiser than we are. It is more at peace. Even its humblest element surpasses us in virtue:

      Isn't it plain the sheets of moss, except that
      they have no tongues, could lecture
      all day if they wanted about
 
      spiritual patience?
                             ("Landscape")

Accordingly, most of the poems lend to Nature ear and eye. They notice the shark's "domed head," its "teeth / in the grin and grotto of its impossible mouth," the "stone eyes" of black snakes, "root-wrangle," "the moon staring / with her bonewhite eye," "the smell of mud," "the crisp life-muscle" of the clam as she slashes through it with her knife, "the black anonymous roar" of the "turning tide." Fresh vigorous description characterizes the book, but it is also sufficient merely to name, to say what she's seen and done in the simplest terms, to enumerate the abundance. One finds always Oliver's purity of motive. Always the intent is to come close, and always it seems, one falls short. In what is perhaps her most thorough statement of theme, "Whispers," she makes a series of proposals, all of which end in frustration. One tries to "slide into / the heaven of sensation" but meets a "resistance." One tries to imagine "pleasure, / shining like honey," but it is "locked in some / secret tree." And so on. Though the rivers swirl and the birds are "like tossing fires" and nature is "blood's heaven, spirit's haven," the message is clear—"you cannot belong."

Of course what is clear is that Oliver does belong, and that she comes as close as most of us are likely to get. While the poems are very good at dramatizing the aspiring soul in its restlessness, Oliver is all the while expressing harmony by means of her finely-tuned and lush language. If Nature confronts us with a gracefulness that is self-contained and self-sufficient, and needs nothing from us, not even our participation, our proper duty, Oliver seems to be saying, is to respond in kind through art. Flashes of marvelous language occur at almost every turn. In attempting to discover, for example, that "something" that lies at the, center of her responsiveness, she writes "something about the way / stone stays mute and put," where reiterations of consonants attest to the sturdiness that resides at the heart of experience. In "Trilliums," Nature's many voices and energies are embodied in the sequence of noun and verb combinations of stanza six:

      From the time of snow-melt,
        when the creek roared
          and the mud slid
            and the seeds cracked …

Or when she describes our longing to understand the mysteries around us and within us (in "Dreams"), her use of falling meter in the third stanza beautifully expresses not only the ardor of the emotion and its confidence but also our doubt as to our ultimate success:

      if you could only remember
      and string them all together
      they would spell the answer …

These are all small touches, but deft ones, and take the poems well beyond mere flat assertion or statement, and, because rhythm is one of the ways voice becomes physical, we are taken toward a harmonizing of Nature and the human voice that sings its praises. Perhaps Oliver's most effective technique is her adoption in many of the poems of a short, breathy line. As in the quoted material, the poet is not cramped in these ordinarily tight confines. Instead she achieves rich parallels as well as generous and expansive postponements and delays, while also taking full advantage of the many surprises the short lines afford and hinge on, and the many returns. What one gets is a voice eager to speak of wonders and an urgency to get back line after line to further engagements. It is a mode altogether appropriate to her moods and represents, I think, a communion of form and content rare in contemporary poetry.

Janet McNew (essay date Spring 1989)

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SOURCE: "Mary Oliver and the Tradition of Romantic Nature Poetry," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 59-77.

[In the following essay, McNew discusses why contemporary critics have difficulty analyzing Oliver's poetry within the framework of the romantic tradition.]

The special puzzle of Romanticism is the dialectical role that nature had to take in the revival of the mode of romance. Most simply, Romantic nature poetry, despite a long critical history of misrepresentation, was an anti-nature poetry…. Romantic or internalized romance … tends to see the context of nature as a trap for the mature imagination.

—Harold Bloom, "The Internalization of the Quest Romance"

It is the destiny of consciousness … to separate from nature, so that it can finally transcend not only nature but also its own lesser forms.

—Geoffrey Hartman, "Romanticism and 'Anti-Self Consciousness'"

To become poets, women must shift form agreeing to see themselves as daughters of nature and as parts of the world of objects to seeing themselves as daughters of an Eve reclaimed for their poetry.

—Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity

To say that Mary Oliver is a visionary poet of nature is to place her in a modern poetic tradition that springs from the English romantics. Some of the best critical insights into modern mythopoeic lyricism have focused on this tradition as it moves from Wordsworth and Keats to Yeats and Stevens. A glittering company including Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, M. H. Abrams, and Geoffrey Hartman have enriched readings of contemporary visionary poetry by revealing continuities with the romantic consciousness, yet this criticism also confuses readings of Mary Oliver—or H.D. or Audre Lorde—because of unexamined gender bias. Particularly in regard to mythic relations to nature, criticism that does not attend to differences in the psychology and visions of men and women slights the power of women poets. Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature, Carol Christ in Diving Deep and Surfacing, Alicia Ostriker in Stealing the Language, Estella Lauter in Women as Mythmakers all have begun to argue that revising myths about human relations to nature represents a crucial source of creative power for women, yet there remain extraordinary resistances in romantic criticism to valuing these specifically feminine myths. Even a feminist critic like Margaret Homans, whose first book, Women Writers and Poetic Identity, is the best and most sustained examination of women in the romantic tradition, insists that a "feminine tradition" in visionary poetry must turn away from myths that associate women with nature. Although Homans's second book, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing, revises this formulation in ways that I will use later to evaluate Oliver's work, her early feminist work reflects her training in the Bloom-Hartman system of values. Why, we might ask, is so much important contemporary criticism in the romantic tradition unable to appreciate the kind of nature poetry that Mary Oliver writes?

The areas of dispute for these distinguished critics of romantic nature poetry usually involve boundaries—first, of course, between the self and nature, but also by extension between soul and body, consciousness and unconsciousness, subject and object, culture and nature, language and muteness, immortality and death, imaginative poet and immature child, transcendence and immanence. Hence, when we examine the archetypic situation of modern nature poetry and find a single human speaker considering his relation to a landscape (as in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey") or to another creature (as in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale"), we also recognize the interplay of these mythologically opposed pairs. Furthermore, all of these dichotomies have also been philosophically and mythically related to that most pervasive pair, masculine and feminine. The usual sexual dynamic in romantic nature poetry assumes, therefore, a speaking male subject who explores his relation to a mute and female nature [McNew attributes this idea to Homans in Women Writers and Poetic Identity]. Finding an authentic place in this traditional pattern clearly presents challenges for women poets, but, I will argue, the mythological strategies of women poets are less bound by patriarchal strictures than is the literary criticism which evaluates them.

Mary Oliver won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive, and she has had five books of poetry printed and received with warm notices by important reviewers. Although in these circumstances it would be absurd to say that she is neglected, it is true that her work has not received sustained critical attention. Her poetry is neither a replication of romantic accomplishment nor is it, to use Bloom's term, a "belated" modern version of visionary romanticism as is, for instance, that of the much-attended John Ashbery. I suspect that her tones and dramatic situations are not of the sort to attract critics trained in the romantic tradition, for as M. H. Abrams has argued, "great Romantic poems were written … in the later mood of revolutionary disillusionment or despair."

Consider, by way of contrast, Oliver's poem "Sleeping in the Forest":

                   I thought the earth
                  remembered me, she
           took me back so tenderly, arranging
                her dark skirts, her pockets
             full of lichens and seeds. I slept
                 as never before, a stone
                 on the riverbed, nothing
          between me and the white fire of the stars
             but my thoughts, and they floated
            light as moths among the branches
               of the perfect trees. All night
           I heard the small kingdoms breathing
            around me, the insects, and the birds
         who do their work in the darkness. All night
           I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
             with a luminous doom. By morning
            I had vanished at least a dozen times
                   into something better.

This poem is about comfort and a visionary experience that clearly continues to nourish the speaker even though the action of the poem is in the past tense. The first poem in Twelve Moons, the book published just before American Primitive, "Sleeping" exemplifies the dramatic concentration on a mystical closeness to the natural world which has become the major subject of Oliver's last three books. Taking the basic elements of a camping trip, Oliver suggests a ritual return to a maternal earth. The speaker's movement is earthward and toward immersion in a forest floor that so engulfs her that she feels "as if in water." The transformation she describes is the opposite of transcendence, as it associates her with "lichens and seeds." Though she sleeps as profoundly as "a stone / on the riverbed," her sleep is not a blankness but the route taken to a visionary dissolution of her human identity. She grapples "with a luminous doom" which is not a frightening end but rather a temporary vanishing "into something better." Short lines emphasize the lyrical simplicity in this celebration of the joy to be achieved in physical and imaginative unity with nature, but her spare form contains a world of mythic assumptions very different from those of her famous romantic precursors.

Because Oliver's poetry is not as well known as it deserves to be, I want to trace her visionary progress in more detail, but for now this one example will serve to associate her with what Estella Lauter sees as a widespread revision by women artists of "key elements of Western mythology," especially as they concern women's relationship to nature. With references to the work of Susan Griffin, Marge Piercy, and Audre Lorde, among others, Lauter finds a "degree of identification with nature, without fear and without loss of consciousness" which occurs in the works of "surprising numbers of women." Likewise, Carol Christ finds in her examination of spiritual quests "the themes of affirmation of women's bodies and women's connection to nature." Oliver clearly shares her vision with a growing group of women writers who assert with Susan Griffin that "We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature."

If we turn back now to the epigraphs from Bloom, Hartman, and Homans, the contrast is blatant. For the romantic visions these critics brilliantly and convincingly analyze, everything depends on a growth process that includes separating from and transcending nature and its attendant mortality. They reveal a paradoxical "romantic revolution" that began as an attempt to unify body and soul, subject and object, mind and nature but almost immediately became a poetry about the crises and imaginative reconstructions of an alienated consciousness which could regain only fleeting and ambiguous glimpses of union with body, objects, nature. Instead, these poets attempt to purchase new unities by leaving pantheistic pleasures in the past and by relocating faith in the transcendent imagination (Wordsworth's "years that bring the philosophic mind") or in a transcendent art that celebrates a creativity liberated from natural cycles (Yeats's "artifice of eternity').

In these terms Oliver might be associated with a line of female romantic figures like Blake's Thel or Wordsworth's Lucy who fail to pass through ecstatic childhood to the pains of an alienated consciousness and on to the freedom of a transcendent imagination. These mythic women either remain tragically childish or die tragically young and are merged with the mute and inert "rocks, and stones, and trees" of Wordsworth's elegy "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal." Adult female figures associated with nature, like Keats's "La Belle Dame sans Merci," are given witchlike powers to ensnare male poetic questers in sensuous traps and stay them from progress to their transcendent goals. That Starhawk and Mary Daly, among other women writers, happily accept the once-dreaded association with the traditions of witchcraft can do little to allay suspicions that the vision of nature they share will not easily be subsumed into received patriarchal myths about the relation to nature. As witches, spinsters, crones, and nature-mothers begin to speak for themselves, they transvalue their romantic forefathers' mythic assessments as they defy the doom of muteness placed on all these female Others who inhabit masculine poetic landscapes.

Abrams (Natural Supernaturalism) and Hartman have shown that "The traditional scheme of Eden, fall, and redemption merges with the new [romantic] triad of nature, self-consciousness, imagination." Especially when nature is identified with mother and a transcendent God with father, it is easy enough to associate such a pattern with the Freudian version of the Oedipus myth which describes the child's progress from unity with the mother to separation and sexual yearning for renewed union with the mother and finally to a new resolution of identification with the father. That mythic third term, whether it be called Redemption, God the Father, or the Transcendent Imagination, has a distinctly masculine character. In short, the mythic pattern that contemporary criticism has valorized as the high modern poetic place of nature is built on a male model of development. Yet much important feminist theory accepts this valuation. Simone de Beauvoir agreed to a similar model when she celebrated the freedom gained by transcendence and denounced "immanence" as a doom that enmeshes woman in the biological prison house of nature and her body. In her first book, Margaret Homans also assumed that some variation of this mythic pattern is the only way for women poets to come into their fullest powers. She disputed most directly with Adrienne Rich's "Transcendental Etude" because of its eventual refusal of transcendence and its association with nature in the form of a rock shelf. Homans could not credit a poetry that refuses to see human consciousness as necessarily involving transcendence of a maternal nature nor a visionary art that will not seek salvation at the price of alienation from what Oliver calls "the soft animal of your body."

Much, however, suggests that such a pattern for a woman would involve resignation to participation in a patriarchal plan that involves a repudiation of what is mythically female and maternal—the earth, natural cycles, the body. In a recent issue of Critical Inquiry, Sandra Gilbert speculated on ways that women novelists have encoded anxiety about laws of a patriarchal culture which preaches a horrible text to budding women artists: "You must bury your mother; you must give yourself to your father." Refusal to follow this patriarchal order puts a woman artist in a dangerously liminal position in relation to her culture, but it also holds the promise of regaining power lost to those who become what Gilbert calls good "literary daughter[s]." With all the strength of mythic association to body and to nature intact, Oliver and other "bad" daughters create mythic patterns unmarred by the shame of denied origins.

Several of Oliver's poems present the embrace of animals as a dreamlike regaining of original wholeness. "Winter Sleep" imagines crawling "under the hillside" with a "drowsy she-bear." She and her partner are "Two old sisters familiar to each other / As cups in a cupboard." And again, in a poem about remnants of lost prairie buffalo, she concludes with a dream of a buffalo cow giving birth:

     in the fragrant grass
     in the wild domains
     of the prairie spring, and I asked them,
     in my dream I knelt down and asked them
     to make room for me.

In terms of the romantic critical tradition I have outlined, these dreams would suggest a disturbing retreat from consciousness, a return to the preoedipal state that signals failure to achieve a mature poetic identity by successful separation from a maternal nature. Carol Christ, however, points out that because female patterns of development do not necessarily enforce so rigid a separation from the mother, the girl child's tendency to see the world in terms of sameness rather than difference may actually give her greater access to mystical experience. The re-embrace of an attachment to a woman has also, of course, become a standard theme of poets who see the necessity of woman-identification as a prerequisite to a strong womanly self. The best feminist psychology—like, for instance, that of Carol Gilligan—usually understands an integrated female identity to involve some version of Rich's "homesickness for a woman," which in her vision represents a recovery of lost maternal origins. Nowhere in her poetry is Oliver a programmatic feminist; nevertheless, her dreams of reunion with female creatures and with maternal nature receive the validation in feminist terms that male developmental theories and literary criticism built on them would deny.

"The Sea" takes this vision a step further and imagines the body crying for "the lost parts of itself—/ fins, gills / opening like flowers into / the flesh." Her "legs / want to lock" and she can feel "the blue-gray scales." Her reverse phylogeny strongly suggests the backward ontogeny of a return to the womb:

                       Sprawled
              in that motherlap,
                  in that dreamhouse
     of salt and exercise,
           what a spillage
               of nostalgia pleads
                  from the very bones!

The dive into the sea, "that / insucking genesis," allows her to "simply / become again a flaming body / of blind feeling." Nothing in the poem questions the ecstatic fulfillment of this vision. Indeed, in her mythic plot, immersion is revelation of a mystical consciousness and an experience of renewal. How strikingly different this attitude is from the most powerful masculine romantic myths can be seen in a few brief examples. Whitman in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and Crane in "Voyages" also express oceanic longings for immersion, yet there is a crucial difference in their ambivalent sense that returning to the womblike sea would be both vision and suicide. Almost echoing Whitman, Crane urges himself, "Hasten, while they are true—sleep, death, desire, / Close round one instant in one floating flower." This is the old lure of Keats's longing for union with the nightingale which is also a longing for an end to consciousness, "To cease upon the midnight with no pain," and of Whitman's cradle-rocking crone-mother, the sea, who hisses the "low and delicious word death."

Though Oliver's direction of desire is also toward dissolving individual consciousness, she lacks the male poet's mixture of finality and terror with her longing, perhaps because her sense of movement between her individual consciousness and oceanic immersion is more fluid. Her visionary unions belong neither to a lost childhood experience, as does Whitman's, nor to future ultimate death, as does Crane's. She often sleeps to dream of her unions, but she has none of Keats's torment over whether those dreams are the work of deceptive fancy. In "Dreams" as in "White Night" she recalls night visions that tap a bodily consciousness hidden in the light of day and reason, one that reveals a blissful connection to the natural world. "Dreams" asserts that within the "dark buds of dreams" are truths:

      In the center
      of every petal
      is a letter,
      and you imagine
 
      if you could only remember
      and string them all together
      they would spell the answer.

As in "Sleeping in the Forest," her relatively easy movement in and out of visionary physical immersion gives her less reason to find danger or ambiguity in these experiences. The less rigid boundaries to which Carol Christ refers allow her to avoid the anxious either / or questions which run through much male nature poetry: she is herself, human and finite, and in states that are a heightening of physicality and of vision, she is a part of a natural vastness that subsumes her human individuality. She crosses and recrosses those boundaries without anxiety. Nancy Chodorow has argued that this ease of movement back and forth into preoedipal modes represents a strength for maturing girls, who may therefore "come to experience themselves as less differentiated than boys, as more continuous with and related to the external object-world and as differently oriented to their inner object-world as well."

Something else, too, disinclines Oliver to tremble over boundaries between herself and nature, or subject and object, as philosophers would have it. She says in "Humpbacks," "I know several lives worth living," and her imaginations of transformations into fish, fowl, and buffalo become dreams of other lives, other identities that are inhuman but neither unconscious nor mute. For her, almost nothing exists as unconscious object. In "Winter Trees," she traces her gradual recognition that everything has consciousness and even language of some sort: "First it was only the winter trees—/ their boughs eloquent at midnight." But then, as spring comes on and "the ponds opened," she begins "to listen to them" and hears articulate sounds. Next, she even hears that most inert part of nature, "rocks / flicking their silver tongues all summer." Added to, then, Oliver's unpatrolled ego boundaries, her conviction that nature is also an articulate and conscious subject distinguishes her poetry from that built on the eventual recognition of nature as a mute and objective Other.

Perhaps I should pause here to insist, as Carol Gilligan did when she distinguished a moral development for some women that was different from but not inferior to that of Lawrence Kohlberg's men, that Oliver's difference does not necessarily diminish her visionary power. Gilligan and Chodorow have argued that the masculine emphasis on separation, individuation, and autonomy is not superior to the feminine emphasis on interdependence and attachment. For Oliver I have been arguing that this emphasis produces different myths of visionary progress and different concepts of maturity, but once schooled in masculine traditions, readers may find it dangerously easy to see only childish naivete in a celebratory sense of connection to nature. In poems such as "Ghosts" and "Tecumseh," Oliver reveals a keen sense of the alienating effects of a white, imperialist culture that destroys the ecological balances of creatures and rivers, but she herself speaks as an outsider to this culture, as one who rejects its direction in order to join the "primitive" of her book title. As Sherry Ortner has argued, the primitive, the raw and natural, and prehistory all represent contexts within which women traditionally have been set apart from association with patriarchal culture.

Neither ignorant nor immature, the choice of the primitive for Oliver represents choosing a life-affirming wisdom that our advanced culture has, to its detriment, forgotten. Especially in her newest book, Dream Work, Oliver confronts loathsome facts about father-daughter incest, the Holocaust, and starving children and sees them as cultural failures to grasp the simple truths of bodiliness, of our human connection to nature. The haughty businessman in "Rage" denies nightly dreams of his violated daughter as a "tree / that will never come to leaf"; Yeats, Whitman, and van Gogh all committed unforgivable sin when they created "exquisite poems" that celebrate solipsistic and life-hating visions. In her insistence on striving toward connections denied by her culture, then, Oliver's visionary association with nature enables her to be truer to the original intentions of romanticism than were the great male poets who found themselves tugged toward solipsism and away from their original desires for a reconnection to nature. Through the lens of feminist awareness, perhaps it is possible to read the re-emergence of Christian quest patterns that Abrams finds in romantic poetry as tragic failures of revolutionary intentions to break the grip of patriarchal imperatives. The beauty of "Tintern Abbey" or "Frost at Midnight" is beyond argument, but the valuation of their mythic order is not.

What Oliver does in her most intense visionary poetry is not so much to defy patriarchal boundaries as to ignore their defining powers. The terms "soul" and "body," for example, do appear in her poetry, but her mischievous phrasing often confuses the expected dichotomy. "Pink Moon—The Pond" begins with the thrilling call of the spring night at the pond, a calling so stirring that "your soul rises from your bones / and strides out over the water." The "bones," left desolate on the shore, shout for the soul to "come back!" but when the soul does not listen, "like a good friend, / you decide to follow." Ecstasy, vision, and transformation all occur when she steps bodily into the pond, wraps herself in "the darkness coming down / … called / a woman's body / as it turns into mud and leaves." As a matter of fact, then, she does not actually join that airy soul which skims lightly across the water. The transcendent soul floats "unfolding / like a pair of wings" above the pond, becoming a sort of illusory husk which lures her out but has nothing else to do with the vision and fulfillment which occur when she becomes pure body and sinks into the rhythms of nature's spring. Similarly, "Humpbacks" ends with this odd observation:

     Listen, whatever it is you try
     to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
     like the dreams of your body,
 
     its spirit
     longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
 
     toss their dark mane and hurry
     back into the fields of glittering fire
 
     where everything,
     even the great whale,
     throbs with song.

Once again the "spirit" shows a tendency to move skyward while the "bones," often her image for bodily quintessence, dive downward into a singing, earthly communion. The odd thing about this body / soul configuration is that the soul's yearnings appear both foolish and less genuinely visionary than the wise dreams of the body.

In Oliver's "primitive" world, physicality thus becomes the most visionary spirituality. No less than sixteen poems in American Primitive use eating as a central, eucharistic symbol for mystical communion with nature. "The Fish" describes eating her catch:

                  Now the sea
     is in me: I am the fish,…
     ...........
                  Out of pain,
     and pain, and more pain
     we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
     by the mystery.

Three poems about eating honey depend on imagining the food as a link to wood, bees, and flowers, "a taste / composed of everything lost, in which everything / lost is found." Two poems about eating blackberries and one about eating plums confirm her assertion that when pursued with visionary intensity, a physical appetite for natural foods can become an agent of magical power, a nourishment for visionary knowledge:

                                            Joy
     is a taste before
     it's anything else,…
     ..........
                                            Listen,
     the only way
     to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
 
     into the body first, like small
     wild plums

This mystical sensuality operates also through the sexual appetite which in "Blossom" presents the only viable alternative to despair in the face of time which "chops at us all like an iron / hoe." Only "our hunger" and "the burning" bring

                           … joy
                  before death, nights
          in the swale—everything else
                  can wait but not
                           this thrust
                                   from the root
          of the body.

"The Gardens" closes American Primitive in a Sapphic transport which imagines the lover as a "dark country / I keep dreaming of." Her lover's body becomes a landscape of "boughs," a deep forest of "trees," "white fields," and "rivers of bone" into which she plunges, running "toward the interior, / the unseen, the unknowable / center."

Intensely sensuous bodily experience represents for Oliver the human in the act of recovering a truth—that we are creatures. Memory of lost childhood sensuality, "splendor in the grass," led Wordsworth to a very different truth. In his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," he demoted nature from mother to "homely nurse" because he wanted to claim a more divine parentage, a patriarchal one with "God, who is our home." Few romantic poets, even those like Wordsworth who wrote to recover a closer relation to nature, finally see themselves as entirely natural creatures, for natural creatures die, and poets, as Wordsworth's title indicates, must find an imaginative route to immortality. In the face of sober truths about mortality, Oliver remains faithful to her attachment to nature. Instead of forsaking the natural for supernatural eternity, her poems follow the cycles of the seasons to image loss and the possibility for renewal. These vast natural cycles, which usually symbolize traps and prison houses for the romantic visionary, are strangely consoling for Oliver. Wedding herself to them holds her close to the deepest mysteries she knows, those of natural transformation. In a poem about the happiest month, "May," she writes of her

              deepest certainty that this existence too—
     this sense of well-being, the flourishing
     of the physical body—rides
     near the hub of the miracle that everything
     is a part of, is as good
     as a poem or a prayer …

She has also many meditations on crueler seasons which teach her lessons about necessity, survival, and limitation. "A Poem for the Blue Heron" is set in late November when the bird accepts the need for flight from the cold, and the speaker remembers someone telling her, "Not everything is possible; / some things are impossible." "Cold Poem" ends with a characterization of winter as a time for a necessary loss of illusion:

      In the season of snow,
      in the immeasurable cold,
      we grow cruel but honest; we keep
      ourselves alive,
      if we can, taking one after another
      the necessary bodies of others, the many
      crushed red flowers.

She codifies her visionary acceptance of the immanent truths of natural cycles most directly in "In the Blackwater Woods":

     Every year
     everything
     I have ever learned
 
     in my lifetime
     leads back to this: the fires
     and the black river of loss
     whose other side
 
     is salvation,
     whose meaning
     none of us will ever know.
     To live in this world
 
     you must be able
     to do three things:
     to love what is mortal;
     to hold it
     against your bones knowing
     your own life depends on it;
     and, when the time comes to let it go,
     to let it go.

Perhaps the most surprising examples of her vision of the all-enveloping movement of natural cycles occur in a group of poems about the physical transformations occasioned by death. "Bone Poem" celebrates the eventual "equity" in the relation between raptor and victim that happens when bones decay into leaf meal and become food for other animals: "sooner or later / In the shimmering leaves / The rat will learn to fly, the owl / Will be devoured." "Vultures" celebrates the creatures who look for death "to eat it" and so to perform "the miracle: / resurrection." We are urged to overcome our revulsion and not to shrink from this gruesome demonstration of "the earth's / appetite, the unending / waterfalls of change." The poem that poses cyclical transformations in the largest and most positive way is "Ghosts," an elegy for lost buffalo herds. While it mourns the wanton destruction of these beasts by "Passengers shooting from train windows," it also points to the golden eagle who "has a bit of heaviness in him; / moreover the huge barns / seem ready, sometimes, to ramble off / toward deeper grass." These clues, together with the grass which still grows lush over places where buffaloes once left "rich droppings," lead her to insist, "In the book of the earth it is written: / nothing can die." This vision of a natural immortality necessitates surrender of any belief in the supernatural life of an individual soul after death, yet the physical economy of the earth's large cycles does suggest comfort and endurance of a sort to her. Individuality diffuses into a kind of fertilizer for other plants and animals, and the soul does not transcend the body but rather travels with it in a cycle of change that affects other parts of nature through the agency of a physical transmigration. Golden eagles carry a bit of buffalo in them, rats become owls, and, presumably, humans too are carried in these "unending waterfalls of change." Even Whitman, who so robustly sings of the physical, writes in "This Compost" (in Autumn Rivulets) a much less enthusiastic description of this same earthly economy of decay and reconstitution. The thought of the many "carcasses" buried in the earth stirs him to horrified wonder that the ground itself "does not sicken" nor are the winds "infectious." Finally he confesses, "Now I am terrified at the Earth." Not Oliver, for whom this sense of joining the large cycles of the earth is far more comforting than a transcendent vision that will allow for the preservation of her individuality.

Oliver's visionary goal, then, involves constructing a subjectivity that does not depend on separation from a world of objects. Instead, she respectfully confers subjecthood on nature, thereby modeling a kind of identity that does not depend on opposition for definition. "The Turtle" and "Moles" thus become unlikely exemplars, indefatigable heroes who accomplish constantly what the poet achieves only in her most intense dream visions: they have no self apart from their physical flourishing. Moles are "so willing to continue / generation after generation / accomplishing nothing / but their brief physical lives." "The Turtle" is a creature whose arduous climb toward the sands where she will lay eggs is a "greater thing" than a whole list of usual heroic virtues because

     She can't see
     herself apart from the rest of the world
     or the world from what she must do
     every spring.
 
     Crawling up the high hill,
     luminous under the sand that has packed against her skin,
     she doesn't dream,
     she knows
 
     she is a part of the pond she lives in,
     the tall trees are her children,
     the birds that swim above her
     are tied to her by an unbreakable string.

It is perhaps no mistake that these enviable virtues of connectedness belong often to creatures who are also mothers. The ecstatic moments Oliver describes for herself are imitations of this turtle-state. In "Crossing the Swamp," for instance, she enacts her typical immersion and ends with a vision of herself redeemed by the "rich / and succulent marrows" of swamp muck:

                 —a poor
    dry stick given
      one more chance by the whims
        of swamp water—a bough
          that still, after all these years,
    could take root,
      sprout, branch out, bud—
        make of its life a breathing
          palace of leaves.

The mythic direction pursued by Oliver has much in common with what Luce Irigaray calls "la mystérique," the mystical: "This is the place where 'she'—and in some cases he, if he follows 'her' lead—speaks about … 'subject' and 'Other' flowing out into an embrace of fire that mingles one term into another…. The walls of her prison are broken, the distinction between inside / outside transgressed." For Irigaray this mysticism is the most faithful women's vision because "any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the 'masculine.' When she submits to (such a) theory, woman fails to realize that she is renouncing the specificity of her own relation to the imaginary." Toril Moi notes that Irigaray's formulation of mystical experience as "the loss of subjecthood … the disappearance of the subject / object opposition" holds "a particular appeal for women, whose very subjectivity is anyway being denied and repressed by patriarchal discourse."

At this point a return to Margaret Homans's work will clarify the situation of Oliver's mythmaking in feminist theory. In her first book, Homans designated as "daughters of an Eve reclaimed for their poetry" the sort of women poets who might eventually constitute an authentic "feminine tradition" by focusing even more insistently than their brother poets on the possibilities of "non-literal language" and their own "poetic subjectivity." As we have seen, Oliver could not take a place in such a tradition because her poems imagine an identity that does not depend on opposing and transcending the literal, natural creatures and things of the world. Identity matters less to her than consanguinity. Her vision involves not transforming nature into a more satisfactory imaginative realm but rather, paradoxically, using poetry to create a human who is more genuinely natural. Linda Gregerson, one of the most sensitive reviewers of American Primitive, notes, "She is not much moved by the works of man, and she somehow contrives to love the world more than she loves language, no common feat for an artisan who works in words." Put another way, Oliver gives primary emphasis not to the symbolic order of poetic language but to the more literal power of poetry to invoke inarticulate, intuitive experience itself. The frequent imperatives of her poems—all her urgings to "look!" or "listen!"—insist on moving outside art, into the lives of trees, damselflies, owls, and ponds.

In her second book, Bearing the Word, Homans implicitly revises her earlier standards for women's literary achievement. By means of a subtle and dazzling fusion of French and American feminist theory—of Kristeva, Irigaray, and Lacan with Chodorow, Showalter, and Froula-Homans explicates a revisionary and devalued "mother-daughter language" which has goals that almost coincide with those I have claimed for Oliver. Similar to Oliver's mode are the "revisionary myths of literal and figurative" which Homans sees as working "more through thematics than through the invention of new representational practices" such as those created by some French feminists. Homans writes, for instance, of feminine "literary situations and practices" which she terms "literalization" and observes in writers like Dorothy Wordsworth or Virginia Woolf who seek to associate themselves with the mythically female object-world which male literary discourse opposes to the subjectivity represented in the symbolic language of poetry. Homans praises Dorothy Wordsworth for her implicit criticism of her brother's representation of nature when she writes journal entries that offer "free parallels between human and natural, in which there is no order of hierarchy. Her parallels have meaning only if nature has as full a value as the human experience, and it can have that full value only if it is not portrayed as subordinate to the human." These "parallels" of Dorothy Wordsworth's also parallel the values I have attributed to Oliver when she refuses cultural oppositions between a poetic and a natural identity. Thus Homans's new formulation of the feminine strategy of literalization by which women writers identify with things devalued by patriarchal culture—things particularly associated with the mythically feminine natural world—suggests a tradition that embraces Mary Oliver as surely as Women Writers and Poetic Identity denied her.

Finally to understand and properly to assess the poetry of Mary Oliver involves theoretical revisions at least as radical as those Homans is striving toward. Although Coleridge defined art as "the reconciler of nature and man," the best modern criticism has shown that most male romantic nature poetry is about achieving an identity that transcends nature. Unlike Keats, who famously characterized subsumption in natural cycles as becoming "a sod," Oliver finds comfort and joy in her dreams of dissolving into the forest floor. Unlike Wordsworth, who resigns himself to "the philosophic mind" when he becomes powerless to achieve the child's blissful absorption in nature, Oliver finds herself still able to enter a natural communion lost to the adult male poet:

     Every morning I walk like this around
     the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
     ever close, I am as good as dead.
 
     Every morning, so far, I'm alive.

At its most intense her poetry aims to peer beneath the constructions of culture and reason that burden us with an alienated consciousness to celebrate the primitive, mystical visions that reveal "a mossy darkness—/ a dream that would never breathe air / and was hinged to your wildest joy / like a shadow," a dream of oneness with a maternal earth-womb. It would be presumptuous indeed to argue that her faithfulness to the original romantic project makes Oliver's poetry better than that of her great romantic precursors, but her difference from them may cause her vision to be misunderstood and undervalued by those who use male poets to define achievement in nature poetry. Although her mystical values are not those finally chosen by most romantic critics as the tenets of modern poetic faith, they are, I think, values celebrated by many feminist theorists and a burgeoning group of mostly women artists. Surely they and Mary Oliver are neither mistaken nor callow to turn to the web of natural connection to find the source, the sustenance, and the end of the human.

Eleanor Swanson (interview date April 1989)

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SOURCE: "The Language of Dreams: An Interview with Mary Oliver," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May/June, 1990, pp. 1, 6.

[In the following interview, Oliver discusses poetry criticism, poetry workshops, and how her poetry has changed since her early work.]

Mary Oliver's poetry both celebrates the natural world and puts before us disturbing images of that world, in which we see reflections of ourselves. Her poetry leads us to question what it is that makes us human, what being "civilized" has given us—and what it has cost. She calls upon us as readers to be in her poetry, to "look!" and to "listen!" with all of our might. As Janet McNew wrote in Contemporary Literature, Oliver's poetry evidences a "mythical closeness to the natural world" and a "conviction that nature is … an articulate and conscious subject."

She has given us poetry in which the "power of the earth rampages" ("Shadow," in Dream Work), poetry in which the "dark buds of dreams / open / richly" ("Dreams," in Dream Work). As Donald Hall commented, hers is a poetry "that if you leave yourself open to the language of dreams, is open to everyone."

Born in 1935 in Ohio, Oliver attended Ohio State University and Vassar College. She now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her book American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984, and she has won many other awards, including National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships. Oliver has four other books of poetry, including Twelve Moons, Provincetown, Dream Work, and her newest collection, House of Light.

[The Bloomsbury Review:] Your poetic method has been compared to a number of other poets—Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, James Wright. I read a review of one of your books in which three of those names were mentioned in the same paragraph. Do you have a comment on this relentless pursuit of influences on the part of critics?

[Mary Oliver:] What a compliment! And, yes, there is doubtless something about my work which is reminiscent of these poets who are in the American literary tradition. But, specifically, I don't think I have much to do now with Frost or Williams or Millay, or even Wright, whose work has been an important influence. Every poet learns by imitating other poets. We learn everything by imitation! And, as I tell students, there's no shame in this at all. It's a necessary period a writer goes through, a kind of discipleship. But there is finally a time when you begin to hear something new and different—something of your own—and that's the part of your work you want then to cherish, to make strong.

What do you think the critic's relationship is to the poet and poetry? I've read many reviews that reveal more about a critic's lack of knowledge of the poetry than anything else.

Today it seems that everyone wants to be a writer. No one wants to be "just" the reader, and few people are interested in being a critic. To read well is a worthy and not necessarily easy skill; and to criticize well—to be informative in terms of history, theory, background, so that you invite other people into the world of literature—is also a fine and difficult enterprise. A lot of critics don't really criticize, they review. And they review negatively with as much energy as they review positively. This is not very informative, or invitational. Of course there are exceptions—Peter Stitt, David Wojahn, Gregory Orr. Donald Hall is as good as anyone, and he's wonderful. He is in the way I mean, a mentor—more of an essayist really than a critic. Additionally, not many people write about why poets write, why they write about what they write about, etc., the really interesting questions.

I think this notion of the importance of reading well was implicit in my original question. I've sensed a superficiality—the critic doesn't seem to understand a new book, for instance, in the context of the poet's other work, or in the larger context, the much larger context out of which critical writing comes.

Well, yes. Good critical writing should and will illuminate beyond a single book. Criticism has a reputation for being kind of sour—rough and tough. I'll bet the word has some original sense of elucidating, or clarifying. That's one I'll have to look up. [In an editorial aside, Oliver adds: "From the American Heritage Dictionary: the word 'critic', derives from a Greek stem which means, simply, to separate, to choose."]

Your early work—and I'm thinking in particular of The River Styx, Ohio—is formalist. Is that fair, to call it "formalist"?

It's fair to call it formalist, and it's also fair, once again, to call it derivative. No Voyage is my first book, it was published in this country in 1965. The River Styx, Ohio was published in 1972. They're the first two full collections, and they show the influence of all the people you mentioned earlier, plus others. They show the merit of admiring fine, American traditionalists, if you will: I was not concerned at that time about being "original." I was still learning how to write a poem. This was just before the passion for poetry workshops, and I worked alone. I knew very few people who wrote poetry. Today poetry is—can you bear this?—a "growth industry." So I have read, somewhere. But frankly, I'm not sure I didn't learn some things in those years of solitude—reading and writing every day for what … twenty years, twenty-five years—which a person working in company might not learn so well. I had to make my own decisions, without any social response. "In my craft or sullen art …," etc. I fear that sometimes, in workshops, fires are banked. After all, people enjoy a pleasant social response—that's why they join groups, isn't it? This pressure, if you will, could keep the writer a little tame. As well as ambitious for response. Prematurely.

What about Donald Hall and the "McPoem" and the whole workshop phenomenon, the consumer mentality he talks about in his essay "Poetry and Ambition." It's his point that people who come out of the workshop tradition, if that's the term for it, have a huge desire to win more prizes, publish more, possibly at the expense of the work. Would you like to elaborate on the whole workshop phenomenon?

Yes. I esteem Donald Hall greatly, as any sensible person would who knows his work, both his essays and his poetry. And, yes, he has worried over workshop procedures which give—heaven forbid!—"exercises." But now we're in the world of semantics. As I use the word, exercises are fine and useful. There are many mechanical aspects of writing which can be taught—which, in workshops, can be illustrated and practiced.

I go into the classroom like a magician, and I say here are some "tricks" which I have learned and which you can learn, just to have ready. Of course I am talking about language-skill, which, to tell the truth, is often in short supply, even among the most serious aspiring poets. "Tricks" are not poetry, but poetry does employ linguistic laws and acrobatics. So often I see that young writers are relying on luck for something to work—with more linguistic knowledge, they can begin to make the poem work. This, to me, is where a workshop can be helpful.

Remember too that workshops are run by individuals, and individuals have bias. There is no way around it, it's very difficult not to have a deeper affinity for some kinds of poems rather than for other kinds. Also, people try to get along. Two poets will try to get along, and so will twenty, or thirty. Additionally, it's very hard for writers in a workshop not to want, if only a little, to please the instructor. Everybody has to be very careful—writers can give up what is most strange and wonderful about their writing—soften their roughest edges—to accommodate themselves toward a group response.

The idea that something's lost in the process of "softening the rough edges" is an interesting one.

Yes. I think it can happen. I think criticism can come too soon and too harshly in workshops. And, also, the expressed aim of so much effort seems to be the publication of poems—right away, and for prizes. Of course this is almost always interconnected with the search for a teaching job.

One of the criticisms I've heard of Hall's views is that it's easy for someone who's already established to talk about there being no need to covet those awards and prizes, because there's a tremendous amount of competition for a very few jobs. I think that's a factor.

My life has been pretty singular, I guess. I mean, I never considered combining writing and teaching. Now they seem everywhere to go hand in hand. Yet I think they are not necessarily good friends to each other. I meet so many teachers who, in the first place, don't really want to be teaching and so they're kind of depressed people, and, in the second place, they are always trying to arrange for a "better" teaching position, meaning less teaching and more free time. What a sad attitude to have toward one's profession! Mostly, too, I find that people who want to be writers take on the usual joys and responsibilities—spouse, house, children—and so must plan their lives in a financial way. I can't argue with that. And it's too bad that creative people can't expect to make a decent living for years and years, but that's the way it is. If you put in the best part of every day, for years, writing, probably you're going to have a flat pocketbook. I certainly did! Teaching is such a fine profession. But writing is something else—a risk, and yet a necessity in certain spirits. What is the answer? Each of us must try to live a good life and a responsible life, whatever we decide that is. For myself, I do like to teach. But—not too much!

Over your several books, how to you feel your work has changed?

My first two books, No Voyage and The River Styx, Ohio, are out of print and, okay, they can sleep there comfortably. There may be a few poems I will someday want to salvage. But as I've said it's early work, derivative work. The books that follow, beginning with Twelve Moons and concluding with House of Light, I think of as a unit. I won't say much about them except that they all employ the natural world in an emblematic way, and yet they are all—so was my intent!—about the human condition. It's been said of American Primitive that it's a very joyous book. I hope House of Light will be seen in a similar way. What I write next will be quite different. Of course, writers always say this, don't they?

Can you elaborate a little on your ideas about the relationship between ego, the reader, and the world in light of how you feel your work has evolved? Why do you think it is evolving as it is? For example, in Dream Work the human presence is consistently more dominant than in Twelve Moons or even in American Primitive.

Yes, in both American Primitive and Twelve Moons there is one human presence, and that is the voice speaking in the poem, which should, or can, imaginatively, become the reader's inner voice. I was much involved in mechanics in those days. Flaubert says something wonderful: "Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation." I lived for years with that, trying for intense observation, believing in it. Well, I still do!

Your poems that take us to that world are very different from the ones in which the human presence is more prominent. What is the contrast between what is going on in the earliest of these four books and what is going on now in your writing?

What is going on, I suppose, is that I am a different person. It's often said that the lyric gift is the gift of the young—it comes with a tremendous amount of energy, it's tied in some deep way to the compulsive urge. I think it is so. Much of art is accomplished in the wonderful fit of compulsion! Sometimes, now, I think about such fits with utter longing! With age comes change. My commitment to art is as fierce now as my compulsion used to be. Of course I'm talking about the writer instead of the writing, but it amounts to the same thing. I think the poems run a little slower, I'm fonder of the longer line, wanting it to carry more. Issues are becoming more focused.

I sensed in your poem "Singapore" (in House of Light) the world. It's true that a very personal consciousness of death and of our own aging intrudes into our lives as human beings and writers. But I sensed in "Singapore" that the "impersonal" world—in the very best sense of that word—was pushing in too.

Yes. I feel this way. When young poets talk about the confessional poem, I say to them, I should think you would want to represent something more than yourself. I feel the function of the poet—be it short-term or long-term—is to be representative, and under that heading to be political, or social, or anyway somehow instructive and opinionated and useful. Even if only as a devil's advocate. Poets who have no material but their own lives don't hold my interest long, no matter how good they may be. I want poetry to help clarify and enlarge my life, not just tell me, in whatever exquisite detail, about the poet's life. These poems, which speak of the world somewhat directly, please me very much. Of course, as I've said, I always felt I was using the natural world emblematically. But poems like "Singapore" or "Acid" or "Tecumseh" make me fairly happy.

Is it your practice to do a great deal of revision?

Oh yes, yes. I revise an awful lot, fifty, sixty drafts easily. I have an old electric typewriter, no computer, nothing like that. I use notebooks, pens and pencils, the old-fashioned stuff. I do a lot of drafts, and I usually don't keep for long any of the revisions. I make myself make the decisions and go on about it. A lot of writers keep their papers. I don't. I won't be found dead with a lot of papers!

You know, then, when a poem is finished.

When it works. I don't use the question, "Is it perfect?" I ask if it's the best I can do and if it works. And if those two things are so, then I go on to the next poem.

Do you go back and read your work, after it's in print?

I suppose, except for public readings, I wouldn't read very much of it. It's just that I'm that much involved in what isn't finished, or even begun! I think most writers are probably like this.

To go on to something else, I also believe my writing is influenced by the readings. I prefer poems with a narrative—or better yet, two or three stories. I like to switch from rhetoric to a sudden vernacular phrase, or a heavily lyric passage, or throw out a question. Such devices involve the listeners and draw them in. Of course this is all just so that you can soften them up and say what it is you really want to say. This sounds very programmatic, doesn't it? And yet, it's true. I do remember those "listeners" when I write. So all that old stuff—the various mechanics—still fascinates me thoroughly. How enjambed lines "feel" to the listener, as compared with end-stopped lines. All that good business.

That's something concrete, to tell students in workshops.

Yes, absolutely. You know, in every other discipline a student learns a little at a time. In the visual arts, you learn to draw, you learn perspective, you learn theories of color, you learn to use charcoal, and oil paints—all kinds of things. You train your eye and hand to paint a picture, finally. But in poetry you're given the huge responsibility of writing a whole poem, right from the first. And at that point I say the sad thing that happens is that someone says, "Okay, that's pretty good." So the person is encouraged to write exactly the same kind of poem the next time, to try to make it better but do it exactly the same way. Three or four poems down the line, the person is in an awful rut. When I operate a workshop I ask the writers to go back for a while to beginning things. To get some options they have missed. And to learn things from reading, as well as writing. To read, also, with "intense observation."

Perhaps there's something missing in the way students read today.

Well, they read for content, not for the felt experience which is also in the writing. The question asked today is: What does it mean? Nobody says, "How does it feel?" One of the things I like to suggest is for a student to take an especially admired poem—say Yeats' "Easter, 1916"—and read it every morning for thirty days or so. Read it slowly and carefully. As though it were the only poem in the world. Then, you begin to learn how to read.

That's a wonderful way, too, of defecting the notion that a poem will fall apart under close scrutiny.

Yes.

When we first corresponded about this interview, you were a bit reluctant to grant it. Do you feel interviews are invasive? Or have you been misrepresented in the past?

No, I've not been misrepresented, not seriously, but I feel interviews are opportunistic, and not every opportunity should be taken. Some company once wanted to do a videotape of me in my home—walk around and follow me—and wouldn't this be fine. And I said, thank you very much, no. They wrote and urged me again, suggesting that people who like my work would like to know more about me. And I wrote back and said that, if I've done my work well, I vanish completely from the scene. That's how I feel about it. I believe it is invasive of the work when you know too much about the writer, and almost anything is too much. I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together. So, I don't do many interviews.

A reviewer of American Primitive wrote that you find your primary subjects "outside the apparatus of the literary and high cultural heritage." Do you agree with that characterization?

As opposed to what? Low-culture, or no-culture? Rather a negative way to go about it, don't you think? But it sounds like a lot of the world is left out of that statement, so I'll just take the chance and say: Okay, sure I do.

Eleanor Swanson (review date May/June 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of House of Light, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May/June, 1990, pp. 1, 28.

[In the following review, Swanson finds House of Light to be a contemplative exploration of the paradoxes of nature to reveal the self.]

We have come to expect images of the natural world in Mary Oliver's poetry: dark ponds and bears and lilies, deer, crows, and snakes. Never has the natural world been so pervasive as it is in her latest book, House of Light; never before have the human subjects—when they appear at all—been shown at such remove. Yet, each poem is a deep human cry, a search for a connection with nature that will relieve feelings of loneliness and isolation:

      I saw the heron shaking
      its damp wings—
      and then I felt
      an explosion—
      a pain—
      also a happiness
      I can hardly mention
      as I slid free—
      as I saw the world
      through those yellow eyes.

But loneliness stands at the edge of all the poet's imaginings, inevitable in a "difficult world." "I think I will always / be lonely / in this world," says the narrator of "Lilies." That is a given. Even moments of happiness are tempered, often through their very intensity, as the forest grows dark at its center and the pond yields nothing in its depths. Perhaps this is nature's essential message, that we live always at the mercy of our best experiences, of a thing; at an instant, turning into its opposite: "so long as you don't mind / a little dying how could there be a day in your whole life / that doesn't have its splash of happiness?"

Oliver sometimes seems to insist that despair be left outside the poems: "A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem," she says. But clearly the world intrudes, the world of "glass cities," "cold cities," the world of the poem "Singapore" in which a woman washes airport ashtrays in the public toilet. The trees and birds that "fill" this poem are not real; they are only the artifacts of poetry, a way of saying no to pain:

      If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?
      Of course, it isn't
      Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
      the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
      the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
      the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
      the way this poem is filled with the trees, and birds.

The "house of light" is both the natural world and the poetry that celebrates that world. Familiar swans and lilies and owls have the power to affirm the meaning of the most difficult existence. Even darkness is not something to fear: "But my bones knew something wonderful / about the darkness." It is a source of knowledge:

     I thought of Da Vinci—
     the way he kept dreaming
     of what was inside the darkness—
     how it wanted to rise
     on its invisible muscle
     how it wanted to shine
     like fire.

Darkness is not light's opposite, but its complement on the continuum of experience. Darkness is related to light as birth is related to death, as fear is related to happiness. "How could anyone believe / that anything in this world / is only what it appears to be—" Oliver asks in "What is it?" Clearly these poems of paradox—which recall Taoism and Zen Buddhism—can give us a new perspective on our human trials. We can learn much from the natural world; we need only know that "There are so many stories, / more beautiful than answers." But the most powerful lesson nature teaches is the acceptance of paradox in "the world / that is ours, or could be."

The tone of these poems is variously formal, elegiac, somber, rarely playful. The sense of loss, the experience, the objects of contemplation are delivered in the present moment, as if, indeed, we need know nothing but the present—nothing of personal history or current affairs, for example, nothing of an imperiled future. In "Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond," each day the narrator passes an enormous oak felled many years ago by lightning. It reminds her of "a black boat / floating / in the tossing leaves of summer, / like the coffin of Osiris…." She catches herself, then, and denies the power of the allusion. "But, listen," she says, "I'm tired of that brazen promise: / death and resurrection … what I loved, I mean, was that tree—/ tree of the moment—tree of my own sad, mortal heart—."

This keen sense of mortality and immanence is what has come to matter more than anything.

Reading these poems is like taking a walk, deeper and deeper into the woods. We pass almost no people along our way, and when we do, such as in "Singapore" and "Indonesia," these other humans stand at a distance that is troubling for its immensity or its silence. No human voices other than the narrator's disturb our retreat, the depth of our contemplation. The self seems the only subject; the introspection is privileged and sharply focused again and again, on a narrow landscape.

This seems Oliver's thematic intent, a close focus on self, on paradox in nature and the relationship between interior and exterior landscapes. As Oliver's poetry is crafted toward these thematic ends, so is it crafted for the ear. Sound and rhythm, short lines, and straightforward syntax work together to create poems of great power. This is not a style without risk, however, and the risk is that straightforwardness may lapse into banality, into assertions or conclusions that are pat or already contained within the details of the poem. Such lapses occur but rarely. The poetry in House of Light places us in the presence of beauty and mystery that we feel in our very bones. "Make of yourself a light," says the dying Buddha in "The Buddha's Last Instruction," and this is what Oliver has done: She has illuminated many places of darkness and given us moments of "inexplicable value." Oliver is at her best in these poems: stepping onto the edge, dipping her hand into the dark water, standing in the "white fire," wanting to believe "that the light—is everything," that death "isn't darkness after all, but so much light / wrapping itself around us." This is a poetry in which wanting to believe is forged into belief, into faith:

      I want to believe I am looking
      into the white fire of a great mystery
      I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
      that the light is everything—
      that it is more than the sum
      of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Robert Richman (review date 25 November 1990)

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SOURCE: "Polished Surfaces and Difficult Pastorals," in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, sec. 7, p. 24.

[In the following excerpt, Richman reviews House of Light and finds it to be an optimistic work concerned with the cycles of life.]

Mary Oliver's work seems to inhabit an aesthetic domain unsullied by the bustle of human life. Indeed, her principal theme—"how to love this world," as she writes in "Spring," a poem in her new volume, House of Light—often demands a poetic landscape that, brimming though it may be with lilies, herons, pipefish and crows, is devoid of human beings. Ms. Oliver would appear to think that if you take people as your subject, you will be forced to concentrate on their many hardships and misfortunes. Does she lack patience for such things? No: she's just not their poet.

When she does write about human suffering or nature's less benevolent side, it's usually to show how the agony might be soothed by the world's splendors. When the poet hears the death cries of an owl's victims, she admits that "it stabs my heart." "But isn't it wonderful," she then remarks,

      what is happening
       in the branches of the pines;
        the owl's young,
          dressed in snowflakes,
 
      are starting to fatten—
        they beat their muscular wings,
          they dream of flying
            for another million years
      over the water,
        over the ferns,
      over the world's roughage
        as it bleeds and deepens.

Ms. Oliver's shift from the imagery of death to the owl's brood "dressed in snowflakes" isn't an attempt to shirk whatever is repugnant. It's an attempt to make death more bearable by focusing on the endlessly recommencing life that surrounds it.

In "Singapore," Ms. Oliver describes an encounter with a woman cleaning toilets in an airport washroom. Here too she tries to find something worth praising:

       I don't doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
       And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop
       and fly down to the river.
       This probably won't happen.
       But maybe it will.
       If the world were only pain and logic, who would
       want it?
 
       Of course it isn't
       Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
       the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
       the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
       the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
       the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

Such a life asks the poet to find "the light that can shine out of" it. Ms. Oliver's optimistic point is strengthened by the self-reflexive touch at the end, where she compares the implausibility of the woman's flying to the river with the implausibility of poems "filled with birds and trees." Both express the vainest of hopes—or do they?

Mary Oliver's poems are thoroughly convincing—as genuine, moving, and implausible as the first caressing breeze of spring.

Dennis Sampson (review date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 333-42.

[In the following excerpt, Sampson asserts that House of Light "yields … to everything in nature that is holy."]

What does it mean to have a vision in our time, "in this century and moment of mania," as Robert Penn Warren called it? Is it possible to speak any more, as Whitman did, of humanity as a whole without sounding pompous or political?

Mary Oliver's new book yields, as did Thoreau, to everything in nature that is holy. Some may find seeming artlessness and obsession with birds, beasts, and flowers absurd in her new work; she is not a formalist and is drawn almost exclusively to what is not human in her poetry. Oliver is disarming in her innocence and deft at calling up brilliant similes, a thoughtful and thoroughly empathetic human being. Watching a heron, she says "A blue preacher / flew toward the swamp, / in slow motion," a swan is "a slim / and delicate ship" and "moves / on its miraculous muscles / as though time didn't exist." She describes an oak tree at the entrance to a pond, "when the storm / laid one lean yellow wand against it, smoking it open / to its rosy heart," and, in "The Summer Day," after watching the grasshopper in her hand "moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down," she offers this final comment:

       I don't know exactly what prayer is.
       I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
       into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
       how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
       which is what I have been doing all day.
       Tell me, what else should I have done?
       Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
       Tell me, what is it you plan to do
       with your one wild and precious life?

One hears echoes of James Wright and Galway Kinnell, writers to whom Oliver would not resent being compared. Oliver risks sentimentality when love of the world almost gives in to emotions not won by the poem, but finally she is too wise to let this happen. "Lilies" ("I have been thinking about living / like the lilies / that blow in the fields") recalls Whitman's "I think I could turn and live with animals."

The poem concludes with this felicitous reference to a hummingbird:

       I think I will always be lonely
       in this world, where the cattle
       graze like a black and white river—
 
       where the ravishing lilies
       melt, without protest, on their tongues—
       where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
       just rises and floats away.

Pity sings a hideous and ultimately futile song to itself, as Oliver knows. "Make of yourself a light," says the Buddha in her "The Buddha's Last Instruction" before he dies. And Oliver does this. "Slowly, beneath the branches, / he raised his head. / He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd."

These may not be great poems, but they are awfully fine, wise even. Of the roses in "Roses, Late Summer" that "have opened their factories of sweetness / and are giving it back to the world," she scolds, as a Zen Master might:

       Fear has not occurred to them, nor ambition.
       Reason they have not yet thought of.
       Neither do they ask how long they must be roses, and then what.
       Or any other foolish question.

Lee Upton (review date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: "Inside History," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 6, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 42-4.

[In the following review, Upton notes Oliver's connection of dissimilar images in House of Light.]

Mary Oliver is yet another mature poet—one with whom many of us have much greater familiarity. While Eavan Boland works with domestic interiors, Mary Oliver sets her lens in nature. She writes of lilies and turtles and owls as if each possessed a soul and a singular identity. At times she echoes Walt Whitman, finding peace among animals for their very lack of consciousness, their inability to quarrel or irritate. Despite the note of horror and sudden menace in this book, she proceeds with near mystical love for her subjects.

For Oliver, every day must have "one splash of happiness." Her own happiness seems to arise from connecting images and actions that initially appear dissimilar and arbitrary.

Some of her virtues are immediately apparent in "Looking for Snakes." What is pretty and what is repulsive thrive in the same patch. Two snakes "rise / in a spit of energy / like dark stalks / among the wild, pink roses." The imagination is part of that same natural order.

What is the world but "hunger and happiness," Oliver asks. And she challenges her readers with what amounts to a fierce attention to the moment, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"

Ben Howard (review date September 1991)

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SOURCE: "World and Spirit, Body and Soul," in Poetry, Vol. 158, No. 6, September, 1991, pp. 342-43.

[In the following review of House of Light, Howard finds that Oliver's poems "evoke the fears, sorrows, and joys of the solitary spirit."]

Mary Oliver's purpose is as rare as her austere, insistent voice. In Dream Work Oliver portrayed herself as the humble celebrant of natural enigmas, "learning / little by little to love / our only world." In the present collection, her eighth, she reaffirms that purpose, declaring flatly that there is "only one question: how to love this world." By turns retiring or demanding, self-effacing or peremptory, these new poems honor the otherness of the natural world, even as they contemplate "the white fire of a great mystery." Placing the self in the stream of natural change, these quiet but forceful poems evoke the fears, sorrows, and joys of the solitary spirit. At their most exuberant, they celebrate the spirit's light, whether it manifests itself in fish bones, lilies, snow, or a luminous vision of death—that "scalding, aortal light," wherein we are "washed and washed / out of our bones."

The world that Oliver would love is, for the most part, brutal, impermanent, and unpeopled. It reeks of death and impurity. Although a few of the forty-six poems in House of Light look compassionately at human subjects—laborers in Indonesia; a woman cleaning toilets in the Singapore airport—Oliver's attention turns most frequently to snakes, egrets, turtles, and other animals in the wild. What fascinates her about these creatures is at once their beauty and their unthinking, inhuman cruelty. "[D]eath / is everywhere," she reminds us, "even in the red swamp / of a flower." In the lion of Serengeti she finds an emblem of terror and awe, of grace and death conjoined:

           Can anyone doubt that the lion of Serengeti
                   is part of the idea of God?
          Can anyone doubt that, for those first, almost-
                         upright bodies
                 in the shadow of Kilimanjaro,
 
                  in the lush garden of Africa,
          in the continuation of everything beyond each
                         individual thing,
 
                             the lion
          was both the flower of life and the winch of
                             death—
 
                        the bone-breaker,
                 and the agent-of-transformation?
                                                         "Serengeti"

Here as elsewhere, Oliver's rhetoric is tendentious. In a secular age, one might well doubt the poet's theistic supposition. Insofar as one is convinced by these lines, the agent of persuasion is not Oliver's rhetorical questions so much as her singular vision, in which a carnivore becomes a vehicle of change, and the "individual thing"—be it the lion's prey or the human ego—is subjugated to the natural order.

Oliver is not indifferent to human concerns. On the contrary, her poems draw apt and surprising parallels between natural phenomena and the stirrings of the heart. Terns catching fish bring to mind "the heart blanching / in its fold of shadows / because it knows / someday it will be / the fish and the wave / and no longer itself—." The cry of an owl awakens spiritual longings: "I thought of Jesus, how he / crouched in the dark for two nights, / then floated back above the horizon." And the opening of lilies on the surface of a pond recalls the poet to her sadness:

                           … they are
          devoid of meaning, they are
            simply doing,
               from the deepest
      spurs of their being,
        what they are impelled to do
          every summer.
              And so, dear sorrow, are you.
       "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water"

Yet even in those poems which focus on human feeling, Oliver's stance is rarely self-regarding. She is well aware that the "flapping, blood-gulping crows" have their counterparts in the human psyche. But for Oliver, as for Robinson Jeffers, the natural world is primary. What engages her is not the psyche's inner conflicts but those numinous intersections of the self and the natural world, those meetings in the woods and by the ponds, which engender a sense of reverence and awe:

      I was thinking:
      so this is how you swim inward,
      so this is how you flow outward,
      so this is how you pray.
                 "Five A.M. in the Pinewoods"

Like D. H. Lawrence, Oliver likes to leap abruptly from the minute observation to the sweeping statement. And like Elizabeth Bishop, she is inclined to interrupt her narratives and descriptions with moral and metaphysical questions. When her statements drift toward the oracular ("Nothing's important // except that the great and cruel mystery of the world … not be denied") or when her questions sound naive ("Do you think there is any / personal heaven / for any of us?"), these techniques can be distracting. Within the context of selfless contemplation, they seem willful and intrusive. But in the best of these poems—"Pipefish," "The Terns," "Fish Bones," "Praise"—Oliver's comments ratify her perceptions, enhancing an atmosphere of awe and wonder. And in the last and finest poem of the collection, belief and image fuse in a moment of revelation:

                         so I thought:
                        maybe death
                    isn't darkness, after all,
                       but so much light
                  wrapping itself around us—
 
                      as soft as feathers—
                  that we are instantly weary
            of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes,
                   not without amazement,
                  and let ourselves be carried,
               as through the translucence of mica,
                         to the river
            that is without the least dapple or shadow—
            that is nothing but light …
 
            "White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field"

"Soft as feathers" is unfortunate, "so I thought" redundant. But has any recent collection ended with a more radiant vision—or a firmer affirmation?

David Baker (review date Winter 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of House of Light, in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 192-202.

[In the following excerpt, Baker questions the "isolationist" and "righteous" tendencies in Oliver's poetry.]

Like Stanley Plumly, Mary Oliver is a poet who reworks her passions. While Plumly's poems may have relatively few characters, Oliver's are downright isolated, hermetic; and while Plumly's phrasing is slow, severe, haunted, Mary Oliver's music is loose, humble, casual, innocent. I happen to like her work a good bit, and so find her new House of Light full of pleasures worth my repeated attention, but I also maintain a suspicion or two.

What I like most about Oliver's poems is their reverence for the natural world, their politics (usually implied rather than declared) of ecology, stewardship, and human connection. Her plain style and her persistent, nearly unvoiceable awe at the powerful beauty of nature are well-matched partners. She's in direct descent from the New England naturalists—Bartram and Thoreau, for instance—and, like them, is a rugged individualist. But at times she can seem more nearly an isolationist who prefers the company of herons, black bears, and oak trees to people:

        I have been thinking
        about living
        like the lilies
        that blow in the fields.
 
        They rise and fall
        in the wedge of the wind,
        and have no shelter
        from the tongues of the cattle,
 
        and have no closets or cupboards,
        and have no legs.
        Still I would like to be
        as wonderful
 
        as that old idea.

These opening lines of "Lilies"—which echo the strategy and subject of a great many poems in this book—directly express Oliver's repeated struggle between the human and the natural, and perhaps purposely recall not only the Biblical lilies of the field but also Whitman's lovely section 32 of "Song of Myself": "I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained…." This is, of course, the wonderful old idea, that nature can serve as example and model for human behavior, if only we are unashamed enough, innocent enough, free enough—unhuman enough. And of course Oliver realizes the many reasons prohibiting her reaching such a state of naturalness. It's the age-old realization that the world is too much with us. Still, Oliver frequently wishes to transcend the human world, and the concluding lines of "Lilies" identify this ultimately mystical, more problematic, side of Oliver's vision:

     I think I will always be lonely
     in this world, where the cattle
     graze like a black and white river—
 
     where the ravishing lilies
     melt, without protest, on their tongues—
     where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
     just rises and floats away

To be "ravishing," of course is not only to be beautiful but also to be seized and carried away. Leaving the world of the human requires a death.

This is the point of one of my difficulties with Oliver. She persists in providing many poems with the same, perhaps too-easy solution—politically and aesthetically—merely to rise and float away from a troubling world, to erase it or to erase the self within that world. Occasionally Oliver seems just too good at deflecting blame or responsibility, good at accusing by implication or avoidance, but she's not quite so good at accepting her own share of guilt or involvement, and that is a central difference between her and one of her abiding influences, James Wright. Oliver often intones a rhetoric similar to Wright's voice in The Branch Will Not Break, wherein the human world is often a poor parody of the sublime, saving world of nature, and yet she seldom assumes the kind of participation that Wright demanded of himself. Only the fortunate few can afford to live in the luxury of expansive natural isolation. Her righteousness or piety is Oliver's least becoming quality: "And mostly I'm grateful that I take this world so seriously," she informs us in "The Gift." Too often, the only people we encounter in "this world" are the likes of Van Gogh, Buddha, Michelangelo, Jesus, Blake, Mahler—Oliver's preferred company of the misunderstood, the martyred, and (significantly) the absent.

Other times, though, Oliver seems to sense and question her own isolate habit. In what must be one of her most important and powerful poems, "Singapore," Oliver directly addresses her naturalist's impulse:

     A poem should always have birds in it.
     Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
     Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.

But here, as in a few other poems in House of Light, Oliver's speaker does not stand beside a pond or in a field; she is in the restroom of a Singapore airport, face to face with a woman who "knelt there, washing something in the white bowl." While Oliver's speaker longs for her familiar poetic—"a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem"—she cannot this time avoid or disregard the unpleasant, the human, as "disgust argued in [her] stomach." Oliver's poetry is quite persuasive when she allows herself to become politically, or merely personally, involved. In the second half of "Singapore," she uses her love of nature to inform her growing sense of connection, of appreciation:

     She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
     Everybody needs a job.
 
     Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
     But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
         which is dull enough.
     She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
         hubcaps, with a blue rag.
     Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
     She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river.
     Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

The deliberate similes "like a river" and "like the wing of a bird" signal the poem's leap, the poet's self-conscious insistence to make room for both the painfully human and the beautifully natural by answering her own earlier assertion (and confession) that a poem "should always have birds [and rivers and trees] in it." This poem is an example of Oliver working harder to justify the choices of other poems wherein nature is merely a place of private solace and comfort. Here the poet's own job is similar to the custodian's, to serve as caretaker to the human and the natural, to try to make the world clean again; in essence, for Oliver, not to ignore the world in the first place, since beauty and grace are characteristics of people as well as snowy owls. But, as Oliver admits in this poem, beauty and grace in people must come with the inevitable price of pain, toil, and involvement. The final two stanzas provide an example of Oliver's sympathy and artistry at work, at their best:

     I don't doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
     And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and
         fly down to the river.
     This probably won't happen.
     But maybe it will. If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?
 
     Of course, it isn't.
     Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
     the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
     the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
     the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
     the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

Stephen Dobyns (review date 13 December 1992)

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SOURCE: "How Does One Live?," in The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1992, sec. 7, p. 12.

[In the following excerpt, Dobyns reviews New and Selected Poems and notes the consistency in tone and an "increased precision with language" over the thirty-year period featured.]

Ever since Homer set Achilles brooding in his tent, poets have asked: how does one live? For Mary Oliver one lives by trying to learn how to love the world. For Carl Dennis one lives by learning how to reconcile one's hopes and ambitions with one's failures and shortcomings. For Stephen Berg, one lives by seeking redemption for one's adult nature: the frailty, fallibility and fear.

Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems, just given a National Book Award, joins together poems written over 30 years. One of the astonishing aspects of her work is the consistency of tone over this long period. What changes is an increased focus on nature and an increased precision with language that has made her one of our very best poets. Her new poem, "This Morning Again It Was in the Dusty Pines" concludes with the description of the flight of the owl:

                          as death
                         rises up—
                god's bark-colored thumb—
              and opens the sheath of its wings
 
              and turns its hungry, hooked head
                    upon me, and away,
                         and softly,
                         lamp-eyed,
 
         becomes the perfect, billowing instrument
                         as it glides
                      through the wind
                         like a knife.

There are certain qualities in this poem that one has come to expect from Ms. Oliver: the startling yet precise modifiers (the owl is "lamp-eyed," it is "god's bark-colored thumb"), the exact verbs (elsewhere in this poem the owl "pours itself / into the air) and the line breaks that move one along as easily as Tarzan used to swing from vine to vine. Much contemporary free verse strikes one as lazy. Ms. Oliver's lines and line breaks completely control the rhythm and the pacing. She forces us to read her poems as she meant them to be read. Perhaps only James Wright controlled the free verse line as well as she does.

Although Ms. Oliver's poems are mostly set in the natural world, it would be wrong to call her a nature poet. Nature for her is neither pretty nor nice. Beauty is to be found there, but it is a beauty containing the knowledge that life is mostly a matter of dying. The reason why the only true question is "how to love the world" is that the world is intrinsically unlovable, and one's temptation is to set down one's mortal burden and sink at last into the softness.

There is no complaint in Ms. Oliver's poetry, no whining, but neither is there the sense that life is in any way easy. As a result, many of her poems have as a subtext the teaching of how one lives. In my favorite of her single books, House of Light, she takes up the Buddha's last words to his followers: "Make of yourself a light." Her poems become her attempts to do just that, to make of herself a light.

This gives Ms. Oliver a public concern that differentiates her from many of her contemporaries. These poems sustain us rather than divert us. Although few poets have fewer human beings in their poems than Mary Oliver, it is ironic that few poets also go so far as to help us forward.

Robyn Selman (review date 12 January 1993)

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SOURCE: "Natural History," in Village Voice, Vol. 38, No. 2, January 12, 1993, pp. 81-2.

[In the following review of New and Selected Poems, Selman praises Oliver's composure, sincerity, and dedication to her subject.]

It's a beautiful winter day—one can't help noticing the day when one reads Mary Oliver—a day on which she's won another prize, this time the National Book Award for her seventh book, New and Selected Poems. I think of her at home in Provincetown, where she has a reputation for being something of a recluse. I also think of Elizabeth Bishop, the other National Book Award-winning recluse, with whom Oliver has much in common. Like Bishop, Oliver doesn't go in much for politics, poetic or public. You won't see poems by either of them in women-only anthologies. And the similarities continue: Oliver's poems are not, strictly speaking, personal. She rarely teaches and gives readings far less often than her contemporaries. As Bishop was, Mary Oliver is shy.

But not on the page. She is one of a very few poets who declares her artistic intention boldly and unasked, usually right up front like a platform, or maybe a dedication. "When it's over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms."

With the style of an Eve Arden character. Oliver's poetic composure is unflagging. She sets the tone of her poems straight off, but she keeps her voice gentle, articulate, and capable, as self-knowing as Eve's. Although, as Bishop did, Oliver often asks questions in her poems ("Is the soul solid, like iron?"), questions that make room for ambivalence and quarrel, the poems rarely fall into an impasse. They're solved a thousand times by beauty.

     Do you love this world?
     Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
     Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
     Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden.
     and softly,
     and exclaiming of their dearness,
     fill your arms with the white and pink flowers

Oliver's passionate medium is almost always the pastoral. Though one of her books, Dream Work contains meditations on the Holocaust and personal loss, the majority of her work, like D. H. Lawrence's, May Swenson's, Bishop's, and Marianne Moore's, focuses timelessly on the natural world. Unlike Moore and Bishop, Oliver doesn't anthropomorphize to quite the same effect. She is—and this isn't a negative comment, for I have none—less playful, more dogged, deadly sincere.

"One morning / the fox came down the hill, glittering and confident, / and didn't see me—and I thought: / so this is the world. / I'm not in it. / It is beautiful." Originally from Ohio, Oliver moved to New England, where she worked as a secretary to Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister Norma. She also brings to mind the sober side of Millay, with whom she shares New England and a penchant for poems that have as their underlying subject matter the inevitability of one's own death. And like the later Millay, and most obviously Blake, Oliver infuses her work with a touch of the ecstatic.

In her own time, Oliver has a contemporary in the ecstatic musician Van Morrison; I draw the comparison in part to say that Oliver has few contemporaries in current American poetry, as well as to say that she and Van share a connection to a pastoral life that seems far away (to say the least) from our collective urban grasp. "Every year, / and every year / the hatchlings wake in the swaying branches, / in the silver baskets, / and love the world. / Is it necessary to say any more? / Have you heard them singing in the wind, above the final fields? / Have you ever been so happy in your life?"

Mary Oliver is no guest in the woods. Her quotidian is made up of long walks, dog in tow, sleeping in a tent by a marsh, going out, not in, when a storm comes. At the outset of each poem, we are reminded of her daily task: testing the poet's vision. Her dedication to it is intense. For example, unlike other poets who use symbols from various mediums, Oliver keens her metaphors in the natural palette. Light of nature is never compared to the light of TV. ("When death comes / like an iceberg between the shoulder blades.")

In the vastness of New and Selected Poems, something new is unearthed about Oliver's insatiable hunger for the natural. The personal poems of Dream Work, which fall roughly halfway through the 250 pages, give off a centrifugal energy, drawing the reader in, throwing their power outward. But they're not confessional poems in the style to which we've grown accustomed. Personal moments appear like cloud formations, dense but in motion, throwing long, dark shadows of child abuse and breakdown as well as lightning bolts of blame, rage, and bitterness, all with only the lightest narrative detail. In the afterglow of these few pieces, one senses that for this poet nature is the parent, the companion, the hope, the boldly unselfconscious id riding the ego through the seasons.

     I was always running around, looking
     at this and that.
     If I stopped
     the pain
     was unbearable.
     If I stopped and thought, maybe
     the world
     can't be saved,
     the pain
     was unbearable.
     Finally, I had noticed enough.
     All around me in the forest
     the white moths floated.

These new and selected poems; arranged newest to oldest, work, as you might expect, naturally—like memory, or the mind as it ages; true to a life of the imagination, strikingly declarative, and not at all shy.

Judith Kitchen (review date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of New and Selected Poems, in The Georgia Review, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 145-59.

[In the following review, Kitchen notes a disparity between earlier poems which feature a division between nature and narrator and later poems in which the narrator becomes one with nature.]

Her [Oliver's] New and Selected Poems reminds us of the territory she has covered since her first publications in the early 1960's, and I am glad to see some old favorites in this larger context. For example, "Ghosts" mourns the loss of the buffalo by imagining a time when they were abundant; then, with its insistent question—"have you noticed?"—the poem forces the reader to examine the silence of extinction, the blissful oblivion of those who have inherited the land. From an earlier book "Entering the Kingdom" remains an excellent example of how human consciousness divides us from our own environment. The speaker of the poem goes out into the realm of the crows and is seen by them as "possibly dangerous." But the speaker wants only "to learn something by being nothing / a little while but the rich / lens of attention." The crows have the last word:

      They know me for what I am.
      No dreamer,
      No eater of leaves.

Or rather, she has the last word. The speaker is forced to articulate the crows' position; observation alone does not suffice. The division between the two realms remains. In spite of the promise of the title, she has failed to enter the kingdom on its terms.

The sharpened edge to Oliver's earlier work has been blunted in the intervening years. Her later poems began to celebrate through a kind of enraptured description; anything natural was a source of wonder. From there it was an easy step to grant to nature human emotions, and so it is that "Spring" can end with this image of a bear: "all day I think of her—/her white teeth, / her wordlessness / her perfect love." Or that "Roses, Late Summer" can allow nature, instead of informing the human life, to become a substitute: "If I had another life … / I would be a fox, or a tree / full of waving branches. / I wouldn't mind being a rose / in a field full of roses." Even Oliver's questions seem to have presumptive answers: "Why should I have it [the soul], and not the camel?" Everywhere she exhibits an impulse toward fusion, toward discovering a place where the speaker can lay down her human burden and, quite literally, become one with the natural order.

Interestingly, in the thirty new poems which comprise the first section of the book, this essentially Romantic impulse is at war with her earlier vision of separation. If these poems by themselves comprised a single volume, I would be forced to note its radical divisions. Even as Oliver recognizes the inability of language to bridge the gap (referring to nature's "dumb dazzle" or its lack of "expression" or its "cold and glassy eye"), she creates a space where nature's "green energy" can claim her in its "husky arms." She confronts the reader with a willed use of the pathetic fallacy. So it is that a deer can have "solicitude" before taking flight, that a waterfall can seem "surprised" by the "unexpected kindness of the air," that the gannet eating the fish is a beautiful thing because "nothing in this world moves / but as a positive power," that the owl can fill himself with a "red and digestible joy." The adjectives betray the stance: the natural is equated with the "good." The opposite is also implied: if something is not of nature, it is potentially bad.

In "Goldenrod," Oliver almost confronts her own dilemma: "And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far, // that is better than these light-filled bodies?" Well, for one thing, I want to answer, the ability to speak about them, to be able to note that it is "natural and godly" to bend in the wind. Aware that the natural world is actually indifferent to her, Oliver deliberately decides not to be indifferent to it. This gives rise to the ecstatic voice of many of the poems, and it is a voice that, because of its very excess, is most compelling. The reader is able to have reservations and still savor Oliver's ability to go with the rush of feeling. In "Peonies" she can gather the flowers with their "sweet sap" and "honeyed heaviness," exclaiming of their "dearness," and we willingly allow her this sensibility because it is so wholly hers. My favorite of such moments is at the end of "Poppies":

   Inside the bright fields,
 
   touched by their rough and spongy gold,
   I am washed and washed
   in the river
   of earthly delight—
 
   and what are you going to do—
   what can you do
   about it—
   deep, blue night?

Frost characteristically recognizes the impenetrability of nature; Oliver defies it to shut her out.

Oliver's opposing impulse is toward a more objective depiction of nature—what happens is simply what happens—accompanied by a self-conscious awareness of human isolation. The last stanza of "Rain" begins "Where life has no purpose, / and is neither civil nor intelligent," and this reader sighs in recognition. In "Hawk" the bird turns into a white blade—and then the blade falls. The title of "Lonely, White Fields" reveals its deliberate slippage; the owl's nightly solitude is echoed by a speaker whose singular voice says, "I don't know / what death's ultimate / purpose is …" And the snow simply goes on falling, "flake after perfect flake."

Imagined death is at the heart of many of these new poems—and, for Oliver, death is the ultimate merger of the human and the natural. The section ends with just such an image:

                                      One morning
      the fox came down the hill, glittering and confident,
      and didn't see me—and I thought:
 
      so this is the world.
      I'm not in it.
      It is beautiful.

Oliver's failure to be adequate to her own epistemological questions makes many of these poems both interesting and irritating—how, for instance, is beauty to be perceived except through human eyes? By looking to nature as worthy of attention in its own right, Oliver acts as assessor. Her metaphors are often formulated in terms of coins, as if giving nature value in human terms. Similarly, her whole poetic endeavor to merge with nature through language reveals the contradiction (of which Oliver is painfully aware) implicit in the very phrase "nature writing."

Maxine Kumin (review date April 1993)

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SOURCE: "Intimations of Mortality," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 7, April, 1993, p. 19.

[In the following review of New and Selected Poems, Kumin praises Oliver for "reaching for the unattainable while grateful for its unattainability."]

Mary Oliver is a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms. She is without vanity or pretense in her celebrations of the lives of mussels, hermit crabs, hummingbirds and other creatures, including a few select people. Reading through her New and Selected Poems, I was struck again and again by the exactitude of her imagery, by her daring marriages of animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms to the human condition, and by her slightly amended transcendentalism, which seems to allow for a stoical embrace of her own mortality. The book is composed of thirty new poems and generous selections from her eight earlier works, and was the winner of the 1992 National Book Award.

This splendid collection works backward from the most recently written poems to ones from Oliver's first collection, No Voyage. The early Ohio poems crisply delineate individuals ranging from Hattie Bloom, her uncle's lost love, to Miss Willow Bangs, the grammar-school teacher who bursts forth at the end of "Spring in the Classroom" "all furry and blooming … in the Art Teacher's arms." Here, too, are Mr. White, the tamed Indian of "Learning About the Indians," Anne, said to be insane, "tending so desperately all / the small civilities," and Oliver's own relatives, evoked in poignant vignettes. We meet her father, who "spent his last winter / Making ice-grips for shoes / Out of strips of inner tube and scrap metal," and her grandmother, who "cooled and labeled / All the wild sauces of the brimming year."

Absent from Oliver's purview are poems we frequently encounter elsewhere today—about exotic triptychs come upon in Italian hill towns; rhapsodizing over glittering traffic rendered majestic by urban lighting; love poems, common or uncommon. But we do get, in among the early works, Aunt Elsie and Uncle William, and the poet as young girl sent out nightly to find the source of Elsie's hallucinatory night music. In this mental and visual landscape, we are in the time of the "Wolf Moon," of "lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes / in the leafless lanes / in the needled dark," in "the season / of the hunter Death; / with his belt of knives, / his black snowshoes …"

A three-part, wrenchingly spare and moving apostrophe to James Wright, Oliver's mentor at Ohio State, dates from 1980, the year of his death. She evokes the quintessential hooting lament of freight trains: "of course. I thought they would stop / when you did. I thought you'd never sicken / anyway, or, if you did, Ohio / would fall down too, barn / by bright barn…." Typically, she refuses to display sentiment: "I had a red rose to send you, / but it reeked of occasion."

Spanning her career in an orderly fashion, New and Selected Poems invites speculation about influences. James Wright is always mentioned as having influenced Oliver. Certainly she shares with him an attentiveness to the working-class world about her and a dogged determination to speak of it in simple diction. But it is also possible to point to May Swenson, who wrote delightful and witty "concrete" poems that assumed fitting shapes on the page.

Oliver dedicates a recent poem titled "The Waterfall" to Swenson, who died in 1989. The four-line stanzas indent in an orderly fashion, irregular longer lines alternating with brief ones, perhaps in imitation of "the water falling, / its lace legs and its womanly arms sheeting down…." It concludes: "And maybe there will be, / after all, / some slack and perfectly balanced / blind and rough peace, finally, / in the deep and green and utterly motionless pools after all that falling?" It is impossible in this space to reproduce exactly the dance of many of Oliver's poems on the page, but the careful reader will also see patterns that enhance the text in, for example, "The Swan," "White Flowers" and "The Egret."

Swenson's irreverent anthropomorphism in such poems as "News from the Cabin"—"Hairy was here. / He hung on a sumac seed pod. / Part of his double tail hugged the crimson / scrotum under cockscomb leaves …"—may have reinforced Oliver's inclination to render fanciful a recognizable world. Although her early poems also display a startling ability to anthropomorphize (or engage in pathetic fallacy, as John Ruskin called it), in her later poems the vivid and often astonishing imagery actually comes to drive the narrative.

Nineteenth-century poets so overfilled the vessel with babbling brooks and sighing trees—Ruskin so effectively denounced the practice—that we modern writers are wary of trapping ourselves in unsubstantiated pathos. Mary Oliver, however, walks boldly into this terrain. She can afford to be fearless because she almost never stumbles. Her acuity is enviable. Her sun has "old, buttery fingers"; the turkey buzzards' beaks are "soft as spoons"; a skunk "shuffles, unhurried across the wet fields / in its black slippers … / and two bulbs of … diatribe under its tail…." When the poet lights two lamps in her small house, they are "like two visitors with good stories…." And an invented relative, a "great-great-aunt dark as hickory" is composed of "old twist of feathers and birch bark…."

While we are pursuing influences, we might well ask if the work of Anne Sexton has played any part in shaping Oliver's poetry. Sexton wrote in "Jesus Cooks," one of nine poems in a series titled "The Jesus Papers," "Jesus multitudes were hungry / and He said, O Lord, / send down a short-order cook." Oliver's "Sweet Jesus" begins with this kind of wry dislocation—"Sweet Jesus, talking / his melancholy madness / stood up in the boat / and the sea lay downy silky and sorry"—but then moves away from Sexton's tongue-in-cheek blasphemy. In another poem, a sense of longing for innocence and order suggests Sexton: "I wouldn't mind being a rose / in a field full of roses. / Fear has not yet occurred to them, nor ambition."

Wherever we look we find Oliver reaching for the unattainable while grateful for its unattainability. She stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal. Watching a grasshopper "gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes," "lift[ing] her forearms and thoroughly wash[ing] her face," she declaims: "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass … how to be idle and blessed…." She sees huge drama writ small in the things she observes. In "White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field," not only do the line placements suggest the swooping down onto the snow, the pounce, the lifting off with the prey in its talons—a small nightly drama of death and dismemberment—but the image opens out onto a disquisition on mortality: "[M]aybe death / isn't darkness, after all, / but so much light / wrapping itself around us / … scalding, aortal light…."

We have our poets of ecstasy—Walt Whitman in the last century, Gerald Stern and Edna St. Vincent Millay in this one—and of threnody (too numerous to mention). But I think we do not have many poets like Oliver, who without apology affirms life everywhere she observes it. She is an indefatigable guide to the natural world, particularly to its lesserknown aspects: to turtles and owls, the spurned snake and abjured goldenrod and stagnant, reeking pond full of leeches and lilies. Perhaps because of her awareness of the precarious balance between life and death, she is willing to discard all the usual defenses, to risk the simple declaration: "Nobody knows what the soul is"; "There is only one question: / how to love this world"; "When it's over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms."

Oliver's newer poems focus ever more trenchantly on the frail links between the human and the natural world, and on the passage from life into death. It is our misfortune that she has never shined the bright light of her introspection on human love. I trust whatever she tells me about moths and marsh marigolds, fingerlings and egrets, and am prepared to trust what she might have to say about passion. But I can hardly think of another book of poems that has moved me as deeply as this one.

David Barber (review date July 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of New and Selected Poems, in Poetry, Vol. 162, No. 4, July, 1993, pp. 233-42.

[In the following review, Barber praises Oliver for her unique presence in contemporary poetry, but finds that New and Selected Poems fails to adequately show her growth as a poet.]

With apologies to Susan Mitchell, no poet of our day has more of a claim on the title Rapture than Mary Oliver. Many poets seek communion with nature; Oliver courts ravishment by wildness. Many write in the persona of a solitary; Oliver's projected extremity of isolation approaches that of an anchorite. None can match the singlemindedness with which she depicts states of grace and abandon, and none traffics so unironically in the sublime. A Midwesterner long transplanted to New England's rocky coast, Oliver has assimilated no Yankee parsimony of utterance, and little of the flinty mindfulness that marks the Transcendentalist regard for leafy redoubts. One would have to reach back perhaps to [John] Clare or [Christopher] Smart to safely cite a parallel to Oliver's lyricism of radical purification and her unappeasable mania for signs and wonders.

How Oliver arrived at this far end of things, more mystic now than poet in certain respects, does not lie neatly exposed in her New and Selected Poems. Disconcertingly presented in reverse chronology, this ostensible assemblage of thirty years of Oliver's work is also heavily weighted toward the "new"—slightly more than half of the 132 poems have been published within the last decade. Such apportionment reflects, one must suppose, the poet's sense of conviction as well as coherence: the recent verse, evermore immoderate in its renunciations of the social and the civilized, stands squarely in the foreground as if to discourage an evolutionary perspective. As with a great many of Oliver's individual poems, so with this overview of her oeuvre: the setting is drastically foreshortened, the present tense predominates, the reader is hurtled precipitously into the here and the now.

Nonetheless, Oliver's thralldom does have a paper trail, and the stages and transitions of her poetic are here for the weighing. An instructive juncture can be found on facing pages in the selection drawn from her 1979 collection, Twelve Moons. "The dream of my life," Oliver declares in "Entering the Kingdom," "Is to lie down by a slow river / And stare at the light in the trees—/ To learn something by being nothing / A little while but the rich / Lens of attention." What's appealing here is the delicate equilibrium between self-containment and self-surrender, an apprehension of temporality that points to the sharper temperings of the poem's final stanza: "But the crows puff their feathers and cry / Between me and the sun, / And I should go now. / They know me for what I am. / No dreamer, / No eater of leaves." The poem opposite, "Buck Moon—From the Field Guide to Insects," also finds Oliver attempting to "enter the kingdom," this time by choreographing the mind's transit from disinterested scientific fact ("Eighty-eight thousand six-hundred / different species in North America. In the trees, the grasses / around us.") to devotional awe and wild surmise ("Maybe more, maybe / several million on each acre of earth. This one / as well as any other. Where you are standing / at dusk … / Where you feel / a power that is not you but flows / into you like a river").

All trace of mediation vanishes in Oliver's next collection, American Primitive. The field guide with its received knowledge has been banished; the lens of attention has given way to a whirlwind of sensation and exhilaration. The poet has taken up full-time residence in the kingdom:

     When the blackberries hang
     swollen in the woods, in the brambles
     nobody owns, I spend
 
     all day among the high
     branches, reaching
     my ripped arms, thinking
 
     of nothing, cramming
     the black honey of summer
     into my mouth; all day my body
 
     accepts what it is. In the dark
     creeks that run by there is
     this thick paw of my life darting among
 
     the black bells, the leaves; there is
     this happy tongue.
                                                "August"

The headlong breathlessness of American Primitive, its delirious immersion in wood and swamp and creaturehood, staked out an exclusive poetic territory for Oliver. Her rambles in the wilds occasion none of the meditative rigor of A.R. Ammons strolls over dunes and shore; her extravagant embrace of the natural world wants nothing of Gary Snyder's Buddhistic vigilance and restraint. Her animals are not the allegorical, emblematic beasts of [Marianne] Moore or [Elizabeth] Bishop—when Oliver writes a poem titled "The Fish" the denouement is the devouring: "I am the fish, the fish / glitters in me, we are / risen, tangled together, certain to fall / back to the sea." With their explosive enjambments and jagged phrasing, their egrets that burst into "a shower / of white fire!" and their mushrooms that become "red and yellow skulls / pummeling upward / through leaves, / through grasses, / through sand," the poems in American Primitive hurl themselves into nature with a shuddering visceral intensity, each one another convulsive baptism in the primal and the wild.

No swinger of birches, then, but a seeker of blessings, Oliver has continued to write a breakneck visionary lyric ever since. Her marshes and meadows have become found shrines; her recurring owls and bears and snakes have turned totem. In the poems culled from Dream Work and House of Light one finds a smattering of portraits ("Robert Schumann," "Stanley Kunitz") and exotic set pieces ("Indonesia," "Singapore"), but in the main we are planted squarely in Oliver's sensuous realm of earthly delights, a sanctified interior where "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" and "White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field." Many of the poems are explicitly and overtly spiritual, throbbing with metaphysical questions ("Is the soul solid, like iron? / Or is it tender and breakable, like / the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?") and prophetic expostulations ("the path to heaven / doesn't lie down in flat miles. / It's in the imagination / with which you perceive / this world, / and the gestures / with which you honor it"). Certain others, like "Wild Geese," promise a grace that resides in our animal essence, so that "whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exacting—/ over and over announcing your place / in the family of things."

Any idiom of ecstasy, left to its own devices, faces almost certain exhaustion. Yet Oliver, judging by the thirty new poems at the head of the book, has only grown more heedless. While her general tenor is marginally suggestive of a "natural piety" that would align her with the revelatory Romanticism of Wordsworth and Blake—"When it's over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms," she writes in "When Death Comes"—Oliver's repudiation of rational intellect and her retreat from sustained philosophical or moral inquiry has tended to produce something more accurately described as a poetry of noble savagery. Human nature, on Oliver's fierce terms, is but a corruption of what is "wild and perfect" or, variously, what is "perfect and shining." "Whelks" concludes with an altogether typical momentousness:

                    When I find one
                  I hold it in my hand,
            I look out over that shaking fire,
                I shut my eyes. Not often,
          but now and again there's a moment
                when the heart cries aloud:
                 yes, I am willing to be
                  that wild darkness,
            that long, blue body of light.

Altogether typical—and sore to say, all too predictable. However sincerely arrived at within the course of this single poem (and "Whelks" undeniably has a fine, briny urgency about it), that "not often" rings false. In these newest Oliver poems the epiphanies come thick and fast, and the exaltations are strictly routine. Even if one's sympathies lie, as mine do, with the spirit and scope of Oliver's undertaking, it's difficult not to mark with some dismay that, for all their reveling in unruly organic life, Oliver's poems are becoming increasingly mechanical. Most often composed across jaggedly indented quatrains or in tumbling verse paragraphs abristle with Dickinsonian dashes, their standard contract calls for them to open in riveted observation, shift abruptly as the speaker questions or comments upon the scene, and close, after a more or less uniform page and a half, with a burst of exclamation or a flash of immanence.

More damningly still, these formulaic tendencies point to thoroughgoing rhetorical weaknesses of the sort that call to mind Moore's caveat that "excess is the common substitute for energy." Oliver's language is increasingly beholden to humdrum adjectival intensifiers ("wonderful," "beautiful," "shining"), inert abstractions ("dream," "love," "darkness," "happiness," "wildness"), all-purpose figuration (the gullet of a gannet is a "black fire"; a thistle bud is "a coin of reddish fire"; consciousness is "a slow fire"), and sententious overstatement ("life is real / and pain is real, / but death is an impostor"; "in this world I am as rich / as I need to be"). Too often, a poem such as "Poppies" that begins in concentrated particulars ("The poppies send up their / orange flares swaying / in the wind, their congregations / are a levitation / of bright dust, of thin / and lacy leaves") lapses into editorialized pronouncements, the articulations of Oliver's triggering subject becoming fodder for oracular phraseology and inspirational sermonettes: "of course / loss is the great lesson. // But I also say this: that light / is an invitation / to happiness, / and that happiness, / when it's done right, / is a kind of holiness, / palpable and redemptive." Cutting away from her fixed gaze to her effusive "message," Oliver skates perilously close to the overweening rhetoric of the self-help aisle and the recovery seminar.

Reading these florid canticles against the more peopled and more prosodically alert work from early Oliver volumes like No Voyage and The River Styx, Ohlo, I found myself longing for Oliver to recover a measure of her former solicitude for heritage and custom, to be impelled for old time's sake by fondness or wariness rather than joy or dread, to tarry awhile within the fold and the pale again. It's not that poems like "Being Country Bred," "Spring in the Classroom" or "Learning About the Indians" are necessarily more accomplished for being more couched in autobiography and hedged with home truths, but they do reinforce the impression that Oliver has rather overplayed her hand in recent years, devoting herself to nonce forms of druidic incantation at the expense of a greater, a more generous range of feeling and sensibility. Given that Oliver's sacramental regard for elemental nature is an indispensable counterweight to the painterly approach toward flora and fauna so prevalent in our period style, it is to be hoped that she will remain faithful to the mysteries she treasures by again writing poems driven by sustained attention and not overreaching emotion, poems entrusted to sight and insight somewhat more than to divination and vision.

Paul Oppenheimer (review date October-November 1993)

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SOURCE: "The Innocence of a Mirror," in American Book Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, October-November, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following excerpt, Oppenheimer reviews New and Selected Poems and praises Oliver for maintaining an honest balance in her portrayals of nature.]

Mary Oliver's poetry regards nature with a pioneer's wary eye. Not for her the enthusiasm, which often looks like hysteria these days, of the nature-can-do-no-wrong school of thought, or the worship of natural forces by people who applaud the purity and balance of geological catastrophes, such as tidal waves and avalanches, while dismissing as corruption all valuable and even splendid human accomplishments, such as architecture. Oliver's poetry takes note of a natural murderousness. The lines report the slaughters to be found in any sylvan utopia. They limn a systematic violence. Her aptly horrific sketch of "the soft rope of a water moccasin," for instance, in "Death at a Great Distance," shows it slipping into a tropical pool "where some bubbles / on the surface of that underworld announced / a fatal carelessness," and where "death blurted out of that perfectly arranged mouth." The idea of balance here is not ecology so much as a commonsensical honesty.

It is also that of a general solidity of aesthetic judgment. Oliver's poems demonstrate an awareness of themselves as art, acknowledging a drastic though often scanted difference between art and propaganda, to wit, that while art may affirm certain values, it cannot set about promoting them, no matter how excellent they maybe, without at once surrendering its very lifeblood to dullness, cliches, and pomposity. Pompous finger-wagging is almost entirely missing from these two volumes. If their larger theme is a rural, natural world, with wolves, crows, bears, roses, and ponds penned in vigorous portrait-poems, their method is an innocence of exploration. All is clean air among these stanzas, and the innocence is that of a style refreshingly unstained by sleight-of-hand messages to the reader, snobberies of doctrine, and scurrilities of self-pity. When this works well, what we are given is the innocence of a mirror, one that apprehends nature while shrinking from eccentric distortion—what Schiller may have meant by the smartly naive in art—and one that is devoid of the usual modernist and postmodernist contempt for the language of ordinary human beings.

In fact humanity is pretty nearly absent from Oliver's poetry, or at least this might be one's first impression. A rash judgment could even lead into assorting her with those trendy nature-poets who confuse art with advertising for some sort of save-the-planet campaign, though nothing could be more absurd. Through nine volumes to date, in a career stretching over almost three decades (her first volume appeared in 1963), she has implicitly urged that to reveal how "the crows break off from the rest of the darkness," or how a skunk "shuffles, unhurried, / across the wet fields / in its black slippers," is to clarify a set of essential, and utterly human, states of mind. In many of her poems, animals, flowers, and landscapes become gateways to human exploration. The unfrocking of a few of nature's mysteries exposes human conflicts. The passion of a vulture opens a sluice of human terror, while a glimpse of two does at dawn, as in "Five A.M. in the Pinewoods," reveals "how you swim inward," "how you swim outward," and "how you pray."

The natural world is thus no mere objective correlative for this poet's emotions, nor, in the most acute of her poems, is a vivacious animal kingdom simply appropriated through false personification. Sentimentality is rejected, and observation continuously checks any maudlin subjectivity. A metallic hardness of phrasing, which results from reshuffling the usual contexts of words, but this with an intelligence that heeds the literal meanings of the words themselves, produces insights, and nature becomes, finally, a telescope through which to examine purely human sufferings, hopes, and madness. "The Deer," typically, focuses this telescope on what amounts to a spiritual quest, which is not necessarily religious, for "the earnest work" of the uncluttered soul:

     You never know.
     The body of night opens
     like a river, it drifts upward like white smoke,
 
     like so many wrappings of mist.
     And on the hillside two deer are walking along
     just as though this wasn't
 
     the owned, tilled earth of today
     but the past.
     I did not see them the next day, or the next,
 
     but in my mind's eye—
     there they are, in the long grass,
     like two sisters.
 
     This is the earnest work. Each of us is given
     only so many mornings to do it—
     to look around and love
 
     the oily fur of our lives,
     the hoof and the grass-stained muzzle.

The deer here go on to inspire a "terror of idleness, / like a red thirst," and a realization that "Death isn't just an idea":

      When we die the body breaks open
      like a river;
      the old body goes on, climbing the hill.

The hill may be the cemetery-hill of decay ("I never said / Nature wasn't cruel," Oliver recalls in another poem, "The Foxes") or, equally, what she elsewhere terms a "turning into something of inexplicable value," but there are powerful hints in many of her poems that the "something" must be the universe itself, or nature, or God. An assumed harmony of a natural order of things, whatever the cruelty of nature and the miserable choices that human beings make, dominates such poems as "What Is It?" and "Kingfisher." Nature itself appears, in "Nature," alternatively, as full of tact, as an ambassador of numinous repetitions and "bristling life" in which "nothing new / would ever happen." This freshness of perception throughout, together with an admirable coolness of diction—no doubt the result of Oliver's commitment to doing something "perfectly," as she puts it—is totally engaging. Yet there are serious risks in her affirmation of spiritual transcendence that one finds offered up so uncritically. The chief of these is that the poetry may slide off into mere eloquence. Allied with this is the risk of vapid generalizations. "Dreams do not lie," she writes in "Rage," and one wonders, why not? What evidence is there of any moral superiority in dreams? Similarly, the poet's apparent belief that "light / is an invitation / to happiness" proves unconvincing: one recalls those occasions when light turns into an outright menace. as during the explosion of an atomic bomb. Sometimes, too, endings tend to be facile, a fact suggestive of another, subtler risk of her poetry's ultimately positive attitudes. In "Morning," for example, after a series of effusive musings about a cat in a kitchen, we wind up with "what more could I do with wild words?" and "I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me," lines that merely lounge, limply and senselessly, on the page.

Fortunately, there are few of these slips. "I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer," she has said in an interview. "I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together." The aesthetic of impersonality attested to in these remarks, so reminiscent of T. S. Eliot (and also of his notion that only those with a great deal of personality will know how comforting it can be to escape from it), when it is achieved, and Oliver achieves it often, is surely a blessing: it promotes an artistic balance that allows nature and humanity their capacity for evil as well as good. How much intrinsic goodness can there be, after all, at least from the human point of view, in a natural system that annihilates every living creature, or that may have no compunction about blasting away at the planet with fissionable asteroids?

Susan Salter Reynolds (review date 12 June 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of A Poetry Handbook, in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 12, 1994, p. 6.

[In the following review, Reynolds applauds Oliver for going beyond a how-to format to "connect the conscious mind and the heart."]

Most of us have a natural aversion to books that presume to tell us how to write poetry. [A Poetry Handbook] is not one of those books. Mary Oliver would probably never admit to anything so grandiose as an effort to connect the conscious mind and the heart (that's what she says poetry can do), but that is exactly what she accomplishes in this stunning little handbook, ostensibly written "to empower the beginning writer who stands between two marvelous and complex things—an experience (or an idea of a feeling), and the urge to tell about it in the best possible conjunction of words." From here on in it's all straightforward work: Oliver gives us tools "for the listening mind," tools we need to write poetry, excavating them from centuries of embellishment and obfuscation. First, there is Sound, that link between experience and expression that has somehow come unhinged. Without it, there's hardly any pleasure in poetry. Oliver reminds us that there are not just vowels, but mutes (b, d, k, p, t, q) and aspirates (c, f, g, h, j, s, x) and liquids (l, m, n, r)! Then there is the Line: Why do we turn it when we do (a question often asked of poets, particularly writers of free verse)? Originally, Oliver reminds, the length of the line was linked to the regular English breath, for which the iambic pentameter is best suited. But there are other patterns which, by their very sound, convey anger or tension or melancholy, like notes and phrases in music: the dactyl, the anapest, the trochee, the caesura, all tools to reunite sound and meaning. And there are others: Imagery, Tone (much more intimate, writes Oliver, in contemporary poetry) and Diction. Perhaps my favorite, however, are the brief sections on "Revision," and "Workshops and Solitude," for it is here that Oliver gives some unobtrusive hints for caring for that part of the person that writes poetry: "Athletes take care of their bodies. Writers must simply take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems." "Rise early," and "live simply and honorably," Oliver suggests. "Think of yourself," she writes, "as one member of a single, recognizable tribe."

Robert Hosmer (review date Summer 1994)

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SOURCE: "Meditative Gazing on Contemporary Poetry," in The Southern Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 638-40.

[In the following excerpt, Hosmer reviews New and Selected Poems and praises Oliver's work for its simplicity and clarity.]

The work gathered in Mary Oliver's impressive New and Selected Poems spans three decades, from No Voyage and Other Poems to House of Light; in addition, it presents thirty new poems as well as five not previously included in any volume. And so this volume affords an opportunity to take the long view of this poet's fine work, savoring its many pleasures and assessing its considerable merits. This is a poet whose enduring preoccupation lies with posing apparently simple questions, the answers to which involve contemplation of the deepest mysteries of knowing and being. Though Oliver's verse echoes with the acerbic ironies of Dickinson, the singing cosmic consciousness of Whitman, and the serene playfulness of Edna St. Vincent Millay, her greatest kinship is with Elizabeth Bishop (neither one political or feminist or confessional) and William Blake, two poets whose deceptively simple questions provoked responses that often disclosed previously unnoticed realms; of the two, Blake's is the more powerful presence to emerge from New and Selected Poems, not because he is the only poet mentioned by name here but because his turning away "to a life of the imagination" ("Spring Azures") led him to pose gentle interrogatives of shattering significance. His presence is often palpable in Oliver's work, particularly when, as in "The Summer Day," she asks innocent questions ("Who made the world? / Who made the swan and the black bear? / Who made the grasshopper?") that generate even greater questions that, in turn, reflect scrupulously examined experience: "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?" From another poet, such conclusions would seem hopelessly trite and simple; from Oliver, they bear the simple and singular grace of the honest heart.

Even cursory study of Oliver's work reveals neither radical change nor startling departure (true, the narrative element diminishes, the landscape shifts from the Midwest to the Atlantic coast, and greater, though never radical, experiment with line breaks and stanzaic patterns emerges); rather, the panorama of Oliver's work exhibits an extraordinary and admirable consistency: simplicity, clarity, directness, sincerity (how dangerous to say it!), precision, discipline (her control of free verse is matched only by James Wright's mastery), a skilled use or repetition. Oliver achieves a rare, Zen-like clarity and economy; it can be no accident that so many of her poems bring traditions of Asian calligraphy and painting to mind.

Oliver's patient eye is trained on the natural environment where other creatures predominate, whether fauna (bears, owls, hawks, hummingbirds, swans) or flora (roses, lilies, marsh grass), and the effect is one of extraordinarily splendid profusion. Within such a landscape rests an unobtrusive poet who knows what another creature, the turtle, knows: "she is a part of the pond she lives in, / the tall trees are her children, / the birds that swim above her / are tied to her by an unbreakable string" ("The Turtle"). If Oliver's eye is patient, it is also fearless and far-ranging, scanning nature, unafraid of beauty that is harsh, unrelenting, and death-scented. In one of the earliest poems reprinted here, "Morning in a New Land," the narrator's stance and attitude are emblematic of the poet's throughout this collection: "I stood like Adam in his lonely garden / On that first morning, shaken out of sleep, / Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves, / Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift." This is precisely what Mary Oliver has been doing all these years—looking and listening from a place within, marveling at the gift, perhaps living what she calls, in "Entering the Kingdom," "the dream of my life": "to lie down by a slow river / And stare at the light in the trees."

With the passing of years and one collection after another, Oliver's voice has developed a deeper music, and her imagery has become more richly dense as she has sharpened the metaphysical edge of her questions (in "Questions You Might Ask," from House of Light, she asks, "Is the soul solid, like iron?"). Though death remains an ever-present reality, Oliver has neither given way to a fashionable pessimism nor soared into a superficial, unconvincing spirituality: the poems from House of Light and the new poems here are bound together by a consciously chosen spirit of affirmation, expressed nowhere more clearly than in "The Ponds": "I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing /—that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum / of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do."

The cumulative effect of Oliver's poems? Silence. The deep and embracing silence of amazed contemplation that graces the coda of "When Death Comes," one of her latest, and best, poems:

      When it's over, I want to say: all my life
      I was a bride married to amazement.
      I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
 
      When it's over, I don't want to wonder
      if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
      I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
      or full of arguments.
 
      I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

There is about Mary Oliver's poetry "a deep and miraculous composure"—the words are hers ("Three Poems for James Wright"), the pleasure ours.

Vicki Graham (essay date Fall 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5999

SOURCE: "'Into the Body of Another': Mary Oliver and the Poetics of Becoming Other," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 352-72.

[In the following essay, Graham discusses Oliver's (and by extension, her readers') ability to "become" the various natural bodies she writes about.]

We belong to the moon, says Mary Oliver, and "the most / thoughtful among us dreams / of hurrying down … into the body of another." We dream, we long, and some of us believe that we can step outside of ourselves and enter the body of another. But Western culture discourages these yearnings and demands individualism and the formation of strong ego boundaries and stable identities. Unlike the traveller of Leslie Marmon Silko's "Story from Bear Country," we do not hear the bear's call; we do not see our "footprints / in the sand" become bear prints, nor do we see fur cover our bodies, "dark shaggy and thick." Yet we are conscious, too, of our potential not just to cross the boundaries between ourselves and others, but to be divided within ourselves. We encounter a variety of theories—feminist, psychoanalytic, cultural—that tell us identity is multiple and the boundaries of the self are unstable.

"Pull yourself together," my mother used to say, and I would grope wildly, hoping to catch even one of the selves that spun around me. But I have never been able to pull myself together, and works of art that tempt me to drop the fiction of singularity and invite me to enter the body of another fascinate me. Mary Oliver's American Primitive is one such work. The poems in this collection offer many bodies for us to inhabit; we can become, by turns, bear, fish, whale, swamp, and Pan. We can run with the fox, fly with the owl, dig with the mole, and finally, losing all outward form, dissolve into the totality of nature.

Oliver's celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk. But for Oliver, immersion in nature is not death: language is not destroyed and the writer is not silenced. To merge with the nonhuman is to acknowledge the self's mutability and multiplicity, not to lose subjectivity. But few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver's work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical "that identification with nature can empower women." [Graham attributes this quote to Diane S. Bonds in "The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver."]

Despite this implicitly proscriptive criticism, the desire to immerse oneself in and become part of the natural world persists in women's poetry and novels. Twenty years of feminist, deconstructive, and linguistic theory have not weaned writers like Oliver, Marilynne Robinson, and Susan Griffin (to name just a few) from what skeptics might label a naive belief in the possibility of intimate contact with the non-linguistic world of nature and a confidence in the potential of language to represent that experience. The persistence of this belief suggests to me that we might try reading these works differently. Rather than viewing them as dangerously regressive or as subtextually emancipatory, we might read—them as descriptions and enactments of what Walter Benjamin calls the "mimetic faculty."

According to Benjamin, the mimetic faculty is one of our most precious gifts. Important as sight or hearing, our capacity to mime, Benjamin explains, surpasses nature's, and is directly linked to our cultural activities:

Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man's. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.

The speakers in Oliver's poems not only exhibit a "powerful compulsion … to become and behave like something else"; they also act out the process of becoming something else, inviting readers to join them.

In "The Mimetic Faculty," Benjamin asserts that the human capacity to mime has eroded in recent times, but in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" he suggests that modern technology, particularly the moving picture camera, can help us recover that capacity, bringing us into a new kind of perceptual contact with the world through mechanical reproduction. He notes that "every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction," and he suggests that moving pictures can stimulate the "optical unconscious," leading to increased perception. As Michael Taussig shows in Mimesis and Alterity, Benjamin's hopes were not realized. Poetry such as Oliver's suggests that this need to get hold of something—to touch it, taste it, smell it—has intensified rather than diminished in the last sixty years as technology moves us further and further from actual realities into virtual realities. Despite the stern schooling of postmodern theory, we continue to yearn, as Michael Taussig puts it, "for the true real." And what better way to get close to "the real"—which for Oliver means the natural world—than to become it through mimicry?

"Nature," claims Benjamin, "creates similarities." But so do poets. Word by word, image by image, they exercise their mimetic faculties, simulating the texture and weight of an object, the tenor and color of a feeling, the timbre of a voice. Words make copies of the world, but to say, merely, that these copies are constructions is to close discussion prematurely, as Taussig makes clear in his introduction to Mimesis and Alterity. Aware though we may be of "the constructed and arbitrary character of our practices" our mimetic faculty saves us, "suturing nature to artifice and bringing sensuousness to sense by means of what was once called sympathetic magic, granting the copy the character and power of the original, the representation the power of the represented." Similarly, to dismiss poems that celebrate merging with nature as naive projections is to ignore something crucial about the magical capabilities of language. Taussig offers a far more positive way to describe what Oliver is doing. In short, she is "miming the real into being."

But how does one mime the real into being? Taussig provides an answer immediately applicable to Oliver's poetry. Elaborating on Benjamin's theories, Taussig links mimesis to the sympathetic magic employed by healers and seers, and describes what Frazer distinguishes as the two classes of magic: contagious and imitative. Contact or contagious magic works because, as Frazer says, "things which have been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance." Imitative magic works because "like produces like," or, as Taussig explains, the "copy, in magical practice, affect[s] the original to such a degree that the representation shares in or acquires the properties of the represented." Taussig suggests that often contact and copying overlap (as in an effigy made out of the effluvia of the victim), working together to conjure the presence of or to affect the other.

In Oliver's American Primitive, evoking and then becoming another depends on direct, sensuous contact with the other, on using the body rather than the mind to apprehend it. Over and over the speaker of Oliver's poems reminds herself to look, to touch, to taste, to see, and to smell. Only by yielding to her senses can she get close to the "real"—wild plums, egrets, the first light of morning. Contact leads to contagion; infected by what she has touched or tasted, she begins to copy it spontaneously, "miming [it] into being" through ecstatic identification. Oliver's poems allow us to trace this movement from sensuous contact to copying to becoming, and, in the process, offer a way back to nature, to the "real," from which language separates us. Because many of the poems are spoken in the second person, they also invite us to step outside the boundaries we draw around ourselves and become, not just another, but many others. The possibility of identifying or coming into contact with a "true real" is, of course, debatable, and Oliver's sense of merging with nature is shaped by her culture and by the language she uses to describe her experience, as I show later in this paper through a brief examination of two of Leslie Marmon Silko's poems. But the ways that we use language to describe the experience of stepping outside ourselves and getting to the real are worth studying; as contemporary enactments of sympathetic magic, the poems of American Primitive offer a chance to examine as well as to participate in the process of miming the self "into the body of another."

For Oliver, becoming another begins with longing, a longing often tinged with sorrow, as though Oliver recognized and accepted the difficulties involved. American Primitive is permeated with verbs of desire; the speakers of the poems "want," "dream of," "strive," "long," and "cry for" contact with the natural world, but all too often that contact is blocked. In "White Night," for example, the speaker longs to become one with the "black / and silky currents" of the moonlit pond and dreads the coming of day which will draw her back into the human world with its "difficult / and beautiful / hurricane of light." Half dreaming, she floats into the white night and wants, before day interrupts, to mingle herself with its dark waters:

       I want to flow out
          across the mother
    of all waters,
      I want to lose myself
        on the black
          and silky currents.

The speaker is caught between two worlds: the day world of language and logic and the night world of sensation and dissolution.

In "The Sea," the speaker remembers and longs to return to a pre-rational, pre-human state of existence: "Stroke by / stroke my / body remembers that life …" Though the poem never clearly defines "that life," the images suggest that the speaker imagines herself as a pre-human, aquatic life-form or as an embryo arrested in the fish-stage of human embryonic development. Her "body cries for / the lost parts of itself—fins, gills":

      What a spillage
       of nostalgia pleads
         from the very bones! how
  they long to give up the long trek inland …

Here, as in "White Night," the speaker longs to escape the difficulties of the rational and "to give up the long trek" towards becoming human, but remains fixed in the rational, human world.

Oliver habitually describes the desire to become another as originating in the body—it is the bones that long—but over and over, the mind—"what we know"—counters the body's impulse, bringing the speaker back to self-consciousness. Poems such as "Blossom" and "The Plum Trees" confront this battle between mind and body head on. "Blossom" describes the effect of spring and the moon on the body; aroused by the awakening of the natural world—the "frogs shouting / their desire"—the speaker longs to join in; But the poem is structured as a series of oppositions: "what we know"—that we are mortal and yet that "we are more / than blood"—is posed first against "what / we long for: joy / before death" and then against the "thrust / from the root / of the body." "The Plum Trees" works from the assumption that the mind (sense) and the senses oppose one another, but it reverses the traditional hierarchy, asking that we favor the body rather than the mind and give ourselves up to our senses:

      There's nothing
      so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy
      is a taste before
      it's anything else …
          ...
      the only way
      to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
 
      into the body first, like small
      wild plums.

Oliver insists that we return to the physical world, begin with the body rather than the mind, plums rather than ideas. Though the poem is almost didactic in its assertions, and its play on "sensible" is predictable, it illustrates, through sensuous images, Oliver's insistence on the body as the basis for abstract expression.

Letting her body rather than her mind guide her gives Oliver the contact with the natural world that she craves, but poems such as "The Plum Trees" do not examine the damaging effects of oppositional thinking. Split into a rigid duality, the self is not porous; it cannot take the other into itself nor can it flow outside its own boundaries. Privileging the body reinforces oppositional thinking and blocks rather than enables immersion in the other. In "Humpbacks," for example, evading the mind leads to splitting the body itself into matter and spirit, as though oppositions were endlessly nested one in the other:

     … nothing will ever dazzle you
     like the dreams of your body,
 
     its spirit
     longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
 
     toss their dark mane and hurry
     back into the fields of glittering fire …

Again Oliver privileges the physical over the non-physical—the body's spirit "longs," while the bones simply "hurry back"—but now she has caught the body up in oppositional thinking; fissured, it plays out the original opposition between mind and body that Oliver wished to escape.

Occasionally, however, the natural world startles Oliver into forgetting that mind and body are split, and for a moment they move together. In "Tasting the Wild Grapes," the joy of seeing the fox fills the speaker and she forgets not just the split between mind and body, but the gap between words and their referents. Seeing and naming become simultaneous acts:

       … And forgetting
       everything you will leap to name it
       as though for the first time, your lit blood
       rushing not to a word but a sound
       small-boned, thin-faced, in a hurry
       lively as the dark thorns of the wild grapes
       on the unsuspecting tongue.

The body, the "lit blood," not the mind, leaps to name the fox. A sound bursts from the body, but the sound is visual. The word "fox" is not onomatopoeic; rather, it looks like the fox, "small-boned, thin-faced, in a hurry." Sound becomes first visual, then tactile and glossal, "lively as the dark thorns of the wild grapes on the unsuspecting tongue." Taste, sound, sight, and touch merge into a word—"The fox! The fox!"—and the poem suggests that language comes from the body in imitation of the sensuous qualities of the thing perceived, not from a conscious decision to name. As the senses overlap, the distinction between sensuous and intellectual perception blurs, and the opposition between mind and body dissolves.

Once mind and body stop fighting, direct, sensuous contact with the other becomes possible, allowing an exchange of energy which leads to identification and then merging. In "The Fish," Oliver describes the effects of contact through eating. Enchanted by the beauty of the first fish she ever caught, startled by its refusal, at first, to lie down in the pail and die, the speaker cleans and eats the fish. Eating transforms her:

     Now the sea
     is in me: I am the fish, the fish
     glitters in me.

Touching first lips, tongue, and throat, then entering the stomach and the bloodstream, the fish contacts every part of the speaker's body, and she not only becomes the fish, but the sea that it swims in. The poem suggests that this transformation is permanent: "now the sea / is in me" (emphasis mine), but subsequent poems in the collection suggest that this transformation, like the others, is temporary, and will have to be repeated.

"The Sea" describes the magical effects of contact through immersion of the other in the self; "Crossing the Swamp" describes the opposite, contact and transformation through immersion of the self in the other. The poem opens with a description of a swamp and the speaker's arduous trek across it. She enters the

       … endless
            wet thick
              cosmos, the center
                 of everything—the nugget
       of dense sap, branching
          vines, the dark burred
            faintly belching
              bogs.

The speaker wallows, slips, scrambles for a "foothold, fingerhold, / mindhold over / such slick crossings." But here, the mind cannot get a hold and does not interrupt the process of physical contact with and immersion in the other. She sinks into:

      the black, slack
         earthsoup. I feel
           not wet so much as
            painted and glittered
    with the fat grassy
      mires, the rich
        and succulent marrows
         of earth—a poor
      dry stick given
#x00A0;       one more chance …

Not wet, but painted, the speaker becomes a canvas. Covered with ooze, the swamp's effluvia, she first represents the swamp, as though she were a painting. Then she becomes the swamp, taking on its power with its image. Transformed, the "poor / dry stick" of her body sprouts, branches, and buds like the swamp whose life force it has acquired.

Contact leads to transformation, but it also leads to an even more powerful way of merging with nature—copying and taking on the power of the original. Several poems in American Primitive enact this imitative magic—in "Music," for example, the speaker becomes Pan, and in "Humpbacks" she becomes a whale—but the most interesting examples are the poems which describe the process of imitating and becoming a bear. These poems form a sequence, moving from an indirect identification with a bear's essence to spontaneous, unmeditated, almost "natural" imitation of and entering into the body of the bear. "August," the first poem in the collection, introduces the bear through a synecdoche, subtly setting in motion a current that runs through the rest of the collection. The poem begins with a description of picking and eating blackberries; the speaker is

     thinking
 
     of nothing, cramming
     the black honey of summer
     into my mouth; all day my body
 
     accepts what it is.

Because she is not thinking, the speaker almost seems to be part of the natural world, to be more animal than human, and her "body / accepts what it is." "Accepts" can be read both literally—the body is content with itself—and figuratively—the body ingests (accepts) itself. The blackberries she eats, then, become emblems for the self as nature; taking them into her body reinforces and makes physical the connection she already has with the natural world. The poem ends with a reference to the bear's shadowy presence:

      … In the dark
      creeks that run by there is
      this thick paw of my life darting among
 
      the black bells.

Here, the bear is not simply another creature of the natural world; rather, it is the "thick paw of [her] life," and has special significance for her, a significance that Taussig's discussion of the Cuna belief in two worlds, an original and a copy, can help explain. According to Taussig, the Cuna believe in an "invisible counterpart" of the world we see, an "alter reality" for "all objects, animals, and places in the concrete world" which "is the creative life source of the object." The Cuna see this "spirit [as] superior to and causal of the concrete manifestation." Though Taussig questions, "which comes first, spirit or substance, original or copy?" he suggests that two worlds exist simultaneously, an original and a copy. In the last lines of "August," Oliver, too, senses the presence of this "alter reality." For her, the spirit copy of her "life" takes the form of a bear, a presence that is "superior to and causal of the concrete manifestation." The presence of the bear in "August" suggests that the transformation of the speaker into a bear in later poems is natural; her own spirit copy, in the form of a bear, is already guiding her.

In "Honey at the Table," the next bear poem in the collection, contact leads to copying, but the movement from one to the other is so fluid that it is difficult to pinpoint where contact ends and copying begins. Because the poem is spoken in the second person, it includes the reader in the process, inviting him or her to partake of the honey: "It fills you with the soft / essence of vanished flowers." Honey, like the fish, has the power to transform the speaker. But the honey itself metamorphoses, and starts to resemble, as the speaker eats, one of the "dark creeks" mentioned in "August":

      … it becomes
      a trickle sharp as a hair that you follow
      from the honey pot over the table
      and out the door and over the ground,
      and all the while it thickens,
 
      grows deeper and wider, edged
      with pine boughs and wet boulders.

From flowers to trickle to creek, the honey of this poem calls up the bear before mentioning it. Honey also acts as a metonym for the bear; to taste it is to taste the bear. The transformation to bear occurs almost imperceptibly, the space between the third and fourth stanzas: the speaker has been following the honey-creek,

     … edged
     with pine boughs and wet boulders,
     pawprints of bobcat and bear until
 
     deep in the forest you
     shuffle up some tree, you rip the bark,
 
     you float into and swallow the dripping combs,
     bits of tree, crushed bees—a taste
     composed of everything lost, in which everything
     lost is found.

No longer quite human, the speaker "shuffle[s] up some tree … rip[s] the bark." She becomes a bear in a tree eating honey, and has found everything she has lost. "Lost" here echoes "lost" in "The Sea," where the speaker's body "cries for / the lost parts of itself." There, the speaker longs for a pre-human state which she cannot regain because she is blocked by the opposition between mind and body; here, she regains her spirit copy—the bear—through imitation, first by eating honey, then by shuffling up a tree and ripping the bark.

"Happiness," a bear poem that appears several pages later in the collection, sets up, in its first lines, a clear division between the speaker and the "she-bear," the watcher and actor: "In the afternoon I watched / the she-bear; she was looking / for the secret bin of sweetness." But the poem, which starts out matter-of-factly, veers suddenly into a description of the close tracking of a bear, raising questions about who this speaker is and where she is positioned:

     Black block of gloom, she climbed down
     tree after tree and shuffled on
     through the woods. And then
     she found it! The honey-house deep
     as heartwood, and dipped into it
     among the swarming bees.

Oliver as observer seems to have inserted herself into the natural world, getting closer to and becoming more intimately connected with the observed than is humanly possible, as though the bear she watches is herself. Telling the story of the bear does more than evoke it; it also allows the speaker to identify with it, a process which resembles Taussig's account of the healer who evokes the spirit copy through detailed description. According to Taussig, detailed descriptions give one power over the thing described. He quotes the ethnographer Joel Sherzer: "The subsequent narration of actions and events, addressed to the spirit world, causes their simultaneous occurrence in the mirror image physical world." Taussig then exclaims, "Was ever Frazer's mimetic magic better expressed—except that the simulacrum here is created with words, not objects!" He goes on to say that "the spirits find pleasure in being told about themselves in a detailed and poetic way" and he cites chants in which "the chanter chants himself into the scene."

In "Happiness" Oliver creates a bear out of words. In "The Honey Tree," the final bear poem in the collection, she chants herself into the scene, acting out what she claims to have observed:

     And so at last I climbed
     the honey tree, ate
     chunks of pure light, ate
     the bodies of bees that could not
     get out of my way, ate
     the dark hair of the leaves,
     the rippling bark,
     the heartwood. Such
     frenzy!

The poem at once continues and revises "Happiness." The opening line, "And so at last," suggests that the poem takes up a prior activity, and the poem as a whole repeats many of the images of "Happiness": in both, there is a frenzied tearing of bark and eating of honey. Both climax in an ecstatic moment of identification—the bear with the bees, the speaker with the bear. The bear hums and the speaker sings. The sequence of these two poems suggests that the detailing of the bear's activity in the earlier poem allows Oliver to mime it herself in the next, the first activity leading naturally to the second.

The last poem of the collection, "The Gardens," moves from identification with the individual elements of nature—swamp, fish, bear, etc.—to identification with the totality of nature. Part one opens with an Edenic world, "the good / garden of leaves," where the speaker wanders, seeking "another / creature like me," and whispering, "Where are you?" It ends with the speaker's entrance into another world, as she leaves the "good garden" for the "garden / of fire." In the first lines of part two, the speaker is near to, but not yet in direct contact with the other she sought earlier:

     This skin you wear
     so neatly, in which
     you settle
     so brightly
     on the summer grass, how
     shall I know it?

She moves slowly through the garden, seeking, then gradually begins to understand that the contact she desires can be achieved by touching anything—everything—because the one she desires is everywhere:

     How
     shall I touch you
     unless it is
     everywhere?
     I begin
     here and there,
     finding you,
     the heart within you,
     and the animal,
     and the voice.

The last lines of the poem suggest that the "you" is not simply another person, but the ultimate Other, the natural world, personified, and this Other is everywhere; the speaker "trek [s] / wherever you take me, / the boughs of your body / leading deeper into the trees." This poem, like "Happiness" and "The Honey Tree," climaxes with another ecstatic moment, but unlike these poems, "The Gardens" ends just before the speaker merges with the other. We leave her still moving towards it:

     the shouting,
     the answering, the rousing
     great run toward the interior,
     the unseen, the unknowable
     center.

Clearly, Oliver meant to close the poem before this final merging; if the center is unseen and unknowable, it also must be outside of language.

American Primitive ends with fulfillment; the blank space at the end of "The Gardens" implies that Oliver has lost herself in the "body of another." But this loss of self is never permanent. Oliver becomes, in turn, a bear, a whale, a fish, but, as each poem and each subsequent transformation suggests, she returns again to human consciousness and must repeat the process of becoming another over and over. Rooted in the binary oppositions that structure Western thinking, Oliver can never fully escape the teaching of her culture that the mind is divided from the body and identity depends on keeping intact the boundaries between the self and others. Each of the selves Oliver becomes in this collection is self-contained and separate. A bear, like a human, has its own boundaries, and becoming bear as Oliver understands this process involves moving back and forth across the boundaries between herself and the bear rather than dissolving the boundaries themselves.

Oliver's desire to become other through mimesis conflicts with a culturally instilled need to establish a single, unified self, but Oliver neither faces this problem head on nor articulates it clearly as another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, does. Rilke, too, longs, to get inside the body of another creature, to "let [himself] precisely into the dog's center, the point from which it begins to be a dog, the place in it where God, as it were, would have sat down for a moment when the dog was finished." But unlike Oliver, Rilke articulates the consequences of staying there: "For awhile you can endure being inside the dog; you just have to be alert and jump out in time, before its environment has completely enclosed you, since otherwise you would simply remain the dog in the dog and be lost for everything else." It is that "everything else" that Oliver does not want to be lost for. She cannot resign herself to being just "the dog in the dog" because this would mean she could never be a bear or a fish. Giving up human subjectivity would mean, at least as Oliver perceives it, giving up the ability to mime herself into the body of another. It would also mean giving up self-consciousness, knowing who and what she is, as well as the ability to remember and write about the experience. Oliver's poems suggest that we need language and self-consciousness in order to experience stepping outside of language and the self. Over and over, Oliver lets herself into the whale, the fish, the bear, the Other, and over and over she jumps out in time, clinging to her humanity, to her individuality, and to her sense of the self as a unified subject with distinct boundaries.

Oliver's acceptance of this image of the self shapes her perception of what it means to become another. A different image of the self might have led her to a very different perception of this process. To clarify this point, I would like to turn briefly to some passages from Paula Gunn Allen's The Sacred Hoop and to two poems by Leslie Marmon Silko. According to Allen, Native Americans focus less on the individual than Westerners do; they see the individual as part of a whole which includes not just the community, but the natural world and the cosmic. All life is important; no hierarchies exist to separate humans from or elevate them above the rest of creation: "Tribal people allow all animals, vegetables, and minerals (the entire biota, in short) the same or even greater privileges than humans." Allen goes on to explain that

The American Indian sees all creatures as relatives … as offspring of the Great Mystery, as cocreators, as children of our mother, and as necessary parts of an ordered, balanced, and living whole. This concept applies to what non-Indian Americans think of as the supernatural, and it applies as well to the more tangible (phenomenal) aspects of the universe. American Indian thought makes no such dualistic division, nor does it draw a hard and fast line between what is material and what is spiritual….

Allen's description suggests that the contact and exchange between the self and nature that Oliver longs for so urgently is part of the everyday lives of Native Americans because they do not separate the human world from the natural.

Speaking from her Laguna Pueblo perspective, Leslie Marmon Silko examines specific occurrences of this contact and exchange between human and non-human and the effects on the individual and the community. In her poems "Story from Bear Country" and "He was a small child," she describes what happens to people who join the bears. Because her culture thinks differently from Western culture about the construction of the self and the relationship between the self and others, Silko's account differs radically from Oliver's.

In "Story from Bear Country," Silko speaks to a solitary traveller, telling him that when he walks in bear country, he will know, and will hear the bears calling. She tells him to listen; dares him to follow; but warns him:

     The problem is
     you will never want to return
     Their beauty will overcome your memory.

If he does follow the call, the "bear priests" will try to get him back, but they may not succeed:

     When they call
     faint memories
     will writhe around your heart
     and startle you with their distance.

The poem ends with a dare:

     Go ahead
     turn around
     see the shape
     of your footprints
     in the sand.

The poem is followed by another bear poem, this time told in third person. It describes a child who wanders away from his family and joins the bears. The family calls a medicine man who knows "how to call the child back again." "They couldn't just grab the child"; rather, the medicine man had to bring him back "step by step." However, the child "wasn't quite the same / after that / not like the other children." This same poem appears in Silko's novel Ceremony, and is used to suggest why the medicine man's helper, Shush (which means bear), is "strange." Betonie, the medicine man, then explains that "it is very peaceful with the bears; the people say that's the reason human beings seldom return."

The attitudes embedded in Silko's work differ significantly from Oliver's. The loss of the traveller and the child is a communal rather than a personal loss; in both poems, it is not the person who becomes a bear who is missing something, but the people he left behind. Bringing him back also involves the community, whose presence is part of the ceremony. Second, the person who has gone to join the bears does not want to return; he must be coaxed back carefully, and if he returns, he will be altered. Third, there doesn't seem to be any question at all about the possibility of joining the bears. One simply answers a call; there is no yearning, no searching, as we see in so many of Oliver's poems.

Both Oliver and Silko assume that contact between the human and non-human world is possible, but the way that each experiences and describes this contact differs. At first, Silko's poems seem to suggest that becoming a bear means giving up human consciousness entirely: "Human beings who live with the bears … are naked and not conscious of being different from their bear relatives." But Allen's description of Native American culture suggests that Western concepts of individual human consciousness are not applicable to Native American culture, where rigid distinctions between the self and others, the human and non-human, do not exist. Since all creatures are related and the boundaries between them are fluid, there is a continuous interplay and communication between the human and non-human. Human consciousness is not rigidly separated from other consciousness. For Oliver, the distinction between human and non-human never ceases to exist. Miming and becoming another is a willed artistic act that carries her across boundaries that she nonetheless remains conscious of.

Drawn though she is to the possibility of losing herself in the body of another, Oliver comes to her writing with her cultural assumptions about the self and individuality intact, assumptions that are highly valued and fostered, particularly in American culture. Thinking oppositionally, Oliver sees the boundaries between human and non-human as something that can be crossed but not erased. She perceives nature always as an other which she elevates over the human. The chief value of "entering the body of another" lies, for Oliver, in the temporary loss of human consciousness. She wants to cast off what writers like Silko and Allen see as part of creation, something that cannot be cast off without destroying the balance of the whole.

Oliver's American Primitive is "primitive" in that Oliver has introduced into her poetry the sympathetic magic that Taussig finds in "primitive" cultures, a magic that allows an exchange between things that imitate or have been in contact with each other. Through contact and copying, Oliver envisions and then creates a cosmic order in which she can cross the boundaries between human and non-human and become another, at least momentarily. Oliver does with her imagination what Benjamin thought the moving picture camera could do and what Taussig shows that sympathetic magic can do. Through her writing she can "get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction" ("The Work of Art"). She immerses herself, however briefly, in the natural world, perceives it sensuously, and becomes part of it. The poems she writes allow us to become part of this world with her, letting us cross the boundaries we draw around ourselves and flowing, for a few moments, "into the body of another."

Thomas R. Smith (review date July-August 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of A Poetry Handbook and White Pine in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, July-August, 1995, p. 28.

[In the following review, Smith praises A Poetry Handbook for providing an incisive guide for students of poetry and notes an emphasis on storytelling and mythmaking in White Pine.]

I have before me on the desk a stack of books nearly the height of my coffee mug, Mary Oliver's combined output for the past 15 years and all of her work she has chosen to keep in print. By most poets' productivity standards—a collection every five years or so is standard—this is prodigy. The titles—Twelve Moons, American Primitive, Dream Work, House of Light, and New and Selected Poems—evoke for the reader who has consistently followed Oliver's trail some of the most radiant moments in American poetry in recent decades. To that bright stack, we can now and White Pine, Oliver's new volume of poems, and A Poetry Handbook, her first prose work.

Imagine, if you will, the absurdity of completing a medical education without having attained a thorough knowledge of the parts of the human body—yet poetry students are not expected to learn the parts of the poem's body. A Poetry Handbook is Mary Oliver's response to this increasingly prevalent situation.

While students preparing for careers in music and the visual arts accept as routine "a step-by-step learning process" familiarizing them with the elements and vocabulary of their art, students of poetry are encouraged in the belief that they can write fully realized poems with little or no technical or historical understanding of poetry. Beginning to write in such a milieu, the student does not forge a true style, but

falls into a manner of writing, which is not a style but only a chance thing. Vaguely felt and not understood, or even probably intended.

In its mission to educate the student of poetry, whether reader or writer, beginning or advanced, Oliver's handbook lays down for a new generation basic principles of sound, tone diction, and form, and stands honorably beside earlier guides to prosody, including Babette Deutsch's Poetry Handbook, Harvey Gross's Sound and Form in Modern Poetry, and Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.

Oliver's prose is crisp and authoritative. Her discussion of Frost's sound-work in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is fresh and satisfying, and an excellent chapter on imagery can help poets of varying degrees of accomplishment sort the living image from the cliche in their own work. Her testimony to the awesome truth—as stated by Donald Hall—that "the new metaphor is a miracle, like the creation of life," is inspiring.

While intellectually admirable throughout, some passages in A Poetry Handbook are less passionate and lively than others. It may be fair to demand of Oliver's prose those qualities we expect of her poetry, yet comparisons are inevitable. A trio of closing chapters, on revision, workshops, and solitude, come as close as any in this book to Oliver's poetic fervor:

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision—a faith, to use an old-fashioned term…. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

The reader hungers for more, as well as a bibliography for further study.

Oliver remarks in A Poetry Handbook,

If the poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because he or she has not stood long enough among the flowers—has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.

Indeed, one of Mary Oliver's special gifts as a poet is the ability to awaken us to the beauty of the world and the responsibility that vision costs us.

The 40 poems in White Pine extend in often surprising ways Oliver's meditations on the appropriate relationship of human beings with nature, the rewards of attentiveness toward the world, and the inseparability of beauty and terror. As a practitioner of the "nature" poem, she is currently without rival; no poet in recent times has honored deer, pine trees, hummingbirds, spiders, and owls with the intense, sustained, and loving scrutiny she brings to even the least of her poems.

From the porcupine's dazzling, dark "gown of nails" to the breathtaking glimpse of an owl's open beak "clean and wonderful / like a cup of gold," Oliver's is a landscape distinctly feminine in tone, transformative and pagan, subtly touched all over by the hands of the Goddess, where hummingbirds wear "pale green dresses" and "sea-green helmets," where a doe startled in the pine woods on the hottest day of summer is "a beautiful woman" who rises up "on pretty hooves."

While White Pine is marked by a certain formal restlessness and experimentation (a third of the poems are prose poems), Oliver doesn't break faith or continuity with the line of reckless vision that flashes through her earlier books. If anything, she lives more deeply and riskily the questions that provoke sleeplessness at the end of the 20th century, as she writes in "Snails": "Who are we? What are our chances? Where have we made the terrible mistake we must turn from, or perish?"

The question of how to live, of course, raises the question of how to die, and some of the best poems here, such as "The Sea Mouse" and "I Found a Dead Fox," face the necessity and awful beauty of death with a fearless gaze. In "Williams Creek," we witness the dismembering of a buck's corpse by neighborhood dogs:

     … it must be done—
     perfectly,
     without levity or argument—
     as though it were a dance—
 
     the only one
     that could outwit winter—
     as though the life of everything
     were in it.

These are not comforting observations or thoughts, yet responsible membership in the community of the living depends on our making peace with them. If we necessarily make claims on the world's beauty and abundance, then the world necessarily claims of us a conscious and moral recognition of

     … the hard
     and terrible truth
     we live with,
     feeding ourselves
     every day.
          ("Blue Heron")

In this view (which is also the view of indigenous cultures), we are both eater and eaten; each death buys food, water, a place in the sunlight for a new life. Oliver's appreciation of the essential sacredness of the world's edible and voracious body aligns her with the planet's most enduring religious traditions.

In her prose poem about a boy, "William," Oliver applies the logic of that tradition to her own life: "Whatever he does, he'll want the world to do it in." In a time when the clinging selfishness of the old amounts to an undeclared war on the young, Oliver's generosity is bracing and much-needed:

But he is irresistible! Whatever he wants of mine—my room, my ideas, my glass of milk, my socks and shirts, my place in line, my position, my world—he may have it.

A persistent theme in White Pine, and in Oliver's work generally, is that of necessity—the human necessity of wrestling with questions of death and beauty, desire and surrender, and the animal necessity, to which we also must yield, of eating and being eaten. Yet it must be noted that a part of Oliver hesitates to accept such necessities as absolute. In the lovely title poem, she asks, "Isn't everything, in the dark, too wonderful to be exact, and circumscribed?"

William Stafford distinguished between the darkness of evil and the darkness of nature—in that second, good darkness things are not nearly as "exact" and "circumscribed" as the rational, disenchanted scientific intellect's fantasy of them. In nature at its most profound level, we apprehend the marvelous and inexplicable, to which story, religion, and myth are appropriate human responses. Finally, it is toward storytelling and mythmaking, those ancient disciplines of veneration, that the poems in White Pine lean:

          … what happens
     next we say what happens
       next and why does it
         happen and what happens
           then because that has happened
            lifting up the darkness
             by that much.
                   ("Stories")

In the prose poem "December," a deer with leaves growing from its antlers is Oliver's emblem of a world stranger and more sacred than we know: "The great door opens a crack, a bit of the truth is given—so bright it is almost a death, a joy we can't bear …"

Richard Tillinghast (review date August 1995)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

SOURCE: "Stars and Departures, Hummingbirds and Statues," in Poetry, Vol. 166, No. 5, August, 1995, pp. 288-90.

[Tillinghast is an American poet and educator. In the following review, he praises Oliver for handling "description with a satisfying, jeweler's precision" in White Pine.]

Reading Mary Oliver's new book, White Pine, I was reminded of the cover of the old Petit Larousse Illustre, which shows a girl blowing on a white dandelion blossom, with the caption, "Je sème à tout vent." Oliver's poetry, pure as the cottony seeds of the dandelion, floats above and around the schools and controversies of contemporary American poetry. Her familiarity with the natural world has an uncomplicated, nineteenth-century feeling. In the poem "Work," for instance, Pasture Pond "had lain in the dark, all night, / catching the rain / on its broad back." She handles description with a satisfying, jeweler's precision. Two chicks in the poem "Hummingbirds" are pictured ready "to fly, for the first time, / in their sea-green helmets, / with brisk, metallic tails."

In the first poem quoted above, the poet's own work, given a deliberately feminine connotation in the way it is described, "with the linen of words / and the pins of punctuation," is contrasted to the serene obliviousness of the pond:

     all day I hang out
     over a desk
 
     grinding my teeth
     staring.
     Then I sleep.

In "Hummingbirds" Mary Oliver depicts her comings and goings, the flux of her emotional life, with an almost mythic but still light-fingered touch that, mysteriously, acknowledges a strange kinship with the birds she has just encountered:

      Alone,
      in the crown of the tree,
 
      I went to China,
      I went to Prague;
      I died, and was born in the spring;
      I found you, and loved you, again.

The last quatrain of the poem summarizes almost offhandedly:

     Likely I visited all
     the shimmering, heart-stabbing
     questions without answers
     before I climbed down.

Oliver's innocent-looking adverb, "likely," which introduces the poem's delicate endgame, slyly and modestly undercuts the hovering, balancing play of emotional coloring between "shimmering" and "heart-stabbing."

Though Oliver unapologetically focuses the only awareness she possesses—i.e., her human awareness—on the natural world, nature is not, in the jargon of the day anthropomorphized in the world of White Pine. Its otherness is acknowledged. "Toad," for instance, depicts the odd spectacle, which somehow escapes being comical, of the poet squatting down beside a toad she encounters on a walk, and talking to him:

I began to talk. I talked about summer, and about time. The pleasures of eating, the terrors of the night. About this cup we call a life. About happiness. And how good it feels, the heat of the sun between the shoulder blades.

The toad becomes an emblem of a sort of dumb grace that belongs to the world of inarticulate creatures—lacking the complexity of human awareness, immune to its sorrows:

He might have been Buddha—did not move, blink or frown, not a tear fell from those gold-rimmed eyes as the refined anguish of language passed over him.

Further Reading

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Criticism

Bonds, Diane S. "The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver." Women's Studies 21, No. 1 (1992): 1-15.

Discusses whether Oliver's identification with nature in her poetry echoes traditional poetic stereotypes of women and nature.

Fast, Robin Riley. "Moore, Bishop, and Oliver: Thinking Back, Re-Seeing the Sea." Twentieth Century Literature 34, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 364-79.

Analyzes the poetry of Oliver, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop to see how they use their poetry to relate to their female poet predecessors and successors.

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