By beginning her book with a quotation from George Herbert, a seventeenth century metaphysical poet, Mary Oliver establishes the religious tone and content of her work. Herbert writes, “Lord! Who hath praise enough?” Oliver's poems offer direct and indirect praise of the creator. Herbert, whose chief work was The Temple (1633), found God in nature, just as Oliver does, but her poems lack his liturgical themes, and the structure of The Temple is more pronounced. The fourth poem of Oliver's Why I Wake Early is titled “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” Unlike Herbert's “temple,” with its structure and sense of completion, Oliver's “temple” seems to exist without temporal or topographical boundaries.
Her first poem, “Why I Wake Early,” begins with a “hello” addressed to the “best preacher,” the maker of the morning, the creator of the world. That world may have its “miserable and crotchety” people, but the “preacher,” who speaks through nature, is the source of light and direction, and “ease[s] us with warm touching.” The speaker's “Watch now, how I start the day/ in happiness, in kindness” seems addressed not only to the “preacher” but to her readers, who will discover the happiness and kindness in the rest of the poems.
“Bone” is really about the nature of the soul and one's power to fathom it. Comparing it to the ear bone of a pilot whale, the speaker speculates that both are “so hard, so necessary—yet almost nothing.” The sea, with its “time-ridiculing roar,” seems to mock attempts to define, to reduce “into fractions, and facts” that which cannot be seen but which is nevertheless there. The speaker ends with the realization that “our part is not knowing,/ but looking, and touching, and loving” even without “certainties.”
“Looking” is a pervasive theme in the book, and in her poem about the “temple” the speaker returns to the idea that some things, like the soul, cannot be reached, but they can be reached out to. Readers are enjoined to look, which she defines as not just standing around but as standing around “as though with your arms open.” Essentially, she regards “looking” as seeing, with the latter word's emphasis on being receptive. Looking will result in things coming closer and coming “cordially,” not only warmly, but in its older sense of heart-reviving; even the “blue air” of God seems “close.” In the later “Look and See” the speaker concludes, “Oh, Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we only look, and see.”
As in her earlier works, Oliver incorporates an American Indian perspective in some of the poems in Why I Wake Early, particularly “Beans” and “The Arrowhead.” In the former, beans appear to give themselves up to the fire or the pot, just as animals give themselves up to hunters. Though the speaker acknowledges that these beans are “only vegetables” and hence not like intelligent human beings, she is also aware that all things are creatures. When the speaker finds an arrowhead, she declares, “Now, it's mine,” demonstrating a European American attitude toward ownership. She vows to show the “imposing trinket” to her friends and display it on her desk, but, like the quilt in Alice Walker's short story “Everyday Use,” the arrowhead is not a “trinket” to be displayed. As she walks home, the “old ghost” corrects her assumptions: “I would rather eat mud and die/ than steal as you still steal,/ than lie as you still lie.” The words apply not only to the speaker's taking of the arrowhead but also (“still”) to white Americans’ treatment of American Indians.
“What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon” contains a related ecological theme. The speaker, “seeing what has been done to [the earth],” grows cold as she ponders the fate of the displaced flowers, here personified (a bit more sentimentally than usual) with “faces” and “lives.” She knows she has more material things than she needs and wishes she could live a less materialistic life, substituting “vines for walls,” and grass for a carpet, but she also knows that only when she dies will she be separated from the “buying and selling.” When she is “old and cold,” she will have “only the beautiful earth in my...
(The entire section is 1809 words.)