Mary Oliver is one of those rare contemporary American poets for whom unapologetic and authentic exuberance about her surroundings infuses a lifetime of poems—poems that are, like the poet, “washed and washed/ in the river/ of earthly delight” (“Poppies”). Her New and Selected Poems, which received the National Book Award for poetry in 1992, offers a chance to examine her work as it evolves toward a recognition that she is unified with the world around her, that the wellspring of her joy is a singular voice that speaks from reflections on self and from perceptions of environment. Throughout the books, five previously uncollected poems, and thirty new poems represented in this collection, the poet is always aware that, as she asserts in “Spring,” “There is only one question:/ how to love this world.” The sections are arranged in reverse chronological order, a format that suggests reading to trace the ancestry of Oliver’s rich technical, philosophical, and experiential development. Each section, while working out various experiences, is guided by an unwavering drive toward connection and recapitulation—a belief, perhaps even an instinct, that she will eventually learn “how to love this world.”
The technique in the collection is organic, which corresponds to the focus and goals of the poems. Most of the poems comprise short lines that focus on minute details of language; the lines, like the poems, put reality under a microscope. Oliver’s consistent use of repetition of words and syllables, structures of grammar, even of strings of phrases using the same prepositions, deepens the meditation of the poems by giving them resonance, a resonance that haunts the reader with all the agony and joy of the poet’s experiences.
The last (and oldest) section in the collection, poems from No Voyage, and Other Poems (1963), contains decidedly outward-looking poems that are the origins of Oliver’s genius of perception. She writes in “Being Country Bred”: “Spring is still miles away, and yet I wake/ Throughout the dark, listen, and throb with all/ Her summoning explosions underground.” These early poems are about rural life, a life of organic rhythms keenly in tune with the changing seasons and the behavior of birds, a life lived immersed in a “landscape that we understand” (“Beyond the Snow Belt”). The poetic imagination that will later play a central role in uniting the poet’s mind with nature turns up, if not completely named as such yet: “I own/ Five wooden senses, and a sixth like water.”
Even as she writes her way through these pastoral poems, Oliver recognizes that appreciation, description, and even understanding do not overcome the separation of self from nature. It is not a gulf that can be willed away, and she musters courage to face head on the reality and pain of the gulf. She admits, “There is a thing in me still dreams of trees./ But let it go.…/ Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation.”
The section “From The Night Traveler (1978) and Sleeping in the Forest(1978) and Five Poems Not Previously Included in Any Volume” also engages the outer, natural world. These poems move beyond mere understanding of nature and show early indications of a strategy that explores natural parallels to experiences in the human condition. In both “Ice” and “The Family,” the language of the natural world acts as a language for the emotional life of others. Although Oliver spends much of this section creating setting and atmosphere (poems such as “Farm Country,” “Roses,” and “Bailing the Boat” are almost pure mood pieces), it is a setting in which people slaughter hens, rub down and hoof-trim horses, and collect clams, and in which old women attempt renewal—a setting in which people act and live. The natural world even seems to demonstrate to the poet a certain compassion for human events. In “Hearing of Your Illness,” one of three poems for James Wright, Oliver writes, “Then I went down/ to a black creek and alder grove …/ and told them.” She continues, “I felt better, telling them about you./ They know what pain is, and they knew you.”
Although No Voyage, and Other Poems, The Night Traveler, andSleeping in the Forest show the earliest spark of Oliver’s perceptive capabilities, the poems from the also early The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972) and Twelve Moons (1979) continually confront and expose the self, sometimes brutally. The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems is a self-aware version of autobiography that attempts a unity of poet with reader by creating myth from personal experience. The various characters in these narratives become larger than life in the language Oliver assigns to them. These poems spin a personal history more than a confession. They are filled with universal characters such as the schoolteacher Willow Bangs, holding class inside all spring for her “love with pencils and arithmetic,” and the “fly-by-night” aunt Hattie Bloom, who finally runs out on her husband.
Like the poems from The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems, the poems from the section taken from Twelve Moons are full of autobiography and family history and show evidence of Oliver turning her attention inward, but this time the effect is more subtle. These poems describe the natural world, but the poet’s...
(The entire section is 2215 words.)