New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Eleanor Swanson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
This section contains 1,090 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Eleanor Swanson

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.

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This section contains 1,090 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Eleanor Swanson