(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Mary Oliver dedicated Thirst to her partner since the mid-1960’s, Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. The poems in this volume seem to represent Oliver’s working through grief over that loss, but they express grief with the author’s customary reticence. Although the poems celebrate nature in a way that will seem thoroughly familiar to Oliver’s past readers, they include some very explicit expressions of religious faith, a new element in her work.

Some poems in the collection, however, will seem to cover ground that is very familiar to Oliver’s long-time readers. The very first poem in the book, “Messenger,” makes a claim that sounds as if it must be the theme for the poet’s life: “My work is loving the world.” Oliver goes on to name some of what she loves in the worldsunflowers, hummingbirds, even yeast and clams, reminding readers that it is possible to love even the world’s most humble parts. The poem moves on to ask, “Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?/ Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?” The answer is that boots and coats and age, even perfection are all immaterial. Instead people must exclaim an astonished gratitude for all the ingredients of the lovely world, “telling them all, over and over, how it is/ that we live forever.”

This joy in the world’s beauty appears in most of the poems of the collection. In “When Roses Speak, I Pay Attention,” the roses’ message is that they live extravagantly in their perfumed beauty, and when their time is over, they drop their petals with the same extravagance. “Death, illness, pain” need not encumber, the roses say; only meanness of spirit can do that. In “Great Moth Comes from His Papery Cage,” Oliver first praises the loveliness of the moth but then goes on to remind readers of the wonderful “green-blooded worm” from which the moth was transformed. The very otter, in “Swimming with Otter,” reminds Oliver that she too shares the life of the lake as she uses what she names as “quickness,” the old word for life, which God has given her. For her, life is her ability to make poems.

“Making the House Ready for the Lord” seems to mark a transition into the poems that grapple explicitly with grief. The poem begins as a prayer: “Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but/ still nothing is as shining as it should be/ for you.” Instead, the speaker’s efforts at housecleaning are undermined by a nest of infant mice under the sink, squirrels in the attic, a raccoon in the kitchen, not to mention the household’s dog and cat. These wild creatures need shelter too, as does the fox in the yard. The poem concludes with the speaker’s assertion that in addressing these animalsperhaps among the least of Creationshe is also addressing God, confident that God will come as the speaker urges the animals: “Come in, Come in.”

Oliver finds solace both in the natural world she has always loved and in a newly articulated embracing of Christianity. In “After Her Death,” while Oliver fumbles for a copy of the church season’s lectionary in which to find Sunday’s Gospel lesson, she also reads the lesson taught by the trees, birds, and fish, which all assure her that peace is possible. Several poems in the collection concern her dog, Percy, evidently named for the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Of the poems explicitly about grief, “Percy (Four)” is particularly vivid in its evocation of the blank numbness created by loss and of the solace that can come from daily tasks in much the same spirit as the poet Emily Dickinson described in her poem that begins “The bustle in a house, the morning after death.” In this case, the speaker begins with going to church, walking the beach, playing with Percy. She goes on to note other tasks that must be carried out, even in the midst of death. One goes on paying bills and washing clothes, at the same time saying the name of the dead over and over.

The poet seems to suggest even the mere physical action of praying may help: “I knelt in the dark/ and said some holy words.” After that she returns to march through the day’s routine. Water flowers. Feed the dog....

(The entire section is 1714 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

America 195, no. 10 (October 9, 2006): 23-24.

Booklist 103, no. 1 (September 1, 2006): 39.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 34 (August 28, 2006): 32.