Oliver, Mary Entries


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I surprise myself by connecting so readily with the works of Mary Oliver: I, who spent an entire college course on the Romantics digging myself out from under ruined cottages and Aeolian harps. Yet, by and large, I do connect. Oliver is a "nature poet" in the sense that she places great value on details of the physical world, on taking the time to notice and prize elements of existence often considered small or insignificant. She argues with great passion that these details are actually of great importance, that in them dwell the complex raw material of life, in all its messy joy. I think it's the combination of nuance and deceptively simple language that really gets me about Oliver, and saves her from coming off as saccharine. She is capable of holding within herself two seemingly opposed facts, and presenting them calmly and beautifully, united in a single image. One of my favorite examples of this in Evidence is "Prince Buzzard":

Prince Buzzard,
  I took you, so high in the air,
    for a narrow boat and two black sails.
      You were drifting

in the depths of the air
  wherever you wanted to go,
    and when you came down
      with your spoony mouth

and your red head
  and your creaking wings
    to the lamb
     dead, dead, dead

in the field of spring
  I knew it was hunger
    that brought you --
     yet you went about it

so slowly,
  settling with hunched wings
    and silent
      as the grass itself

over the lamb's white body --
  it seemed
    a ceremony,
      a pause

as though something
  in the quick of your own body
    had come out
      to give thanks

for the dark work
  that was yours,
    which wasn't to be done easily or quickly,
      but thoroughly --

and indeed by the time summer
  opened its green harbors
    the field was nothing but flowers, flowers, flowers,
      from shore to shore

Here Oliver observes, not just the relatively facile truth that life leads into death leads into life, but that the work of death is worthy of care, thoroughness, and thanks. Or maybe the issue is not so much one of worth, but simply of being: the work of death is done with a slow, careful completeness, and the speaker is a witness to that. Oliver is alive to the spirit of the natural world, yet she walks that Romantic line between perceiving and half-creating the world around her: the buzzard pauses, she writes, "as though something / in the quick of your own body / had come out..." Does the buzzard's seeming thankfulness dwell within the buzzard, or within the speaker? Or perhaps a little of each, or in the nexus of the two? Oliver's poems insist on a genuine, bone-deep connection with nature, but they also describe a necessary distance between the human speaker and the world observed. A lyric depicting time the speaker spent with a river otter is titled "Almost a Conversation"; another poem describes a mockingbird's indifference to any human listeners who might overhear his song. In "Moon and Water," Oliver portrays a deep, quiet connection with a natural entity, but also the limits of that connection:

I wake and spend
the last hours
of darkness
with no one

but the moon.
She listens
to my complaints
like the good

companion she is
and comforts me surely
with her light.
But she, like everyone,

has her own life.
So finally I understand
that she has turned away,
is no longer listening.

She wants me
to refold myself
into my own life.
And, bending close,

as we all dream of doing,
she rows with her white arms
through the dark water
which she adores

I love the image, here, of "refolding" oneself into one's own life after a period apart, and I love Oliver's perception of the moon as an entity helpful but aloof, with her own need, in the end, to return to the things which nourish her, "which she adores."

Oliver's language is hard to resist: it's accessible and even conversational, but distilled into a gorgeous precision. Occasionally there is a phrase reminiscent, to me, of a Sappho fragment:

"year after honey-rich year"
"summer / opened its harbors"
"one of those sweet, abrasive blades."

I can almost taste such lines; they fall onto the tongue like, as the poets themselves might say, drops of nectar. Savoring them, I find myself slowing down and lingering over their cadences, luxuriating in the stillness they leave in their wake. Oliver's habit of ending her poems without periods, letting them settle gradually and quietly in the reader's mind, like ripples on water, adds to this effect.

Occasionally Oliver does get a bit dances-with-the-daffodils for my taste. Evidence's "Violets," in particular, crosses some kind of a hippie-Romantic line for me, eulogizing about the lost flowers of childhood, long since bulldozed to make way for development. I also have trouble connecting with the poems in Evidence which use overtly religious language: "More Honey Locust," for example, perceives in the blossom "a prayer for us all"; there are poems called "Hallelujah" and "Prayer," and one that plays with the existence of angels. It's not that I think this kind of language is inappropriate or in any way irrelevant, but being a very secular person myself, I find it distracting. I can deduce from context, intellectually, what sort of a God concept Oliver herself might have, and I must say that it seems thoughtful and hard-won. But as I have none myself, I find that I am jerked out of the visceral experience of the poem whenever religious language makes an appearance.

But these are personal quibbles. Evidence is a masterful collection of poems, and one that only gets more lovely and thought-provoking the more I pore through it.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography