New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Robert Richman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
This section contains 456 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Robert Richman

SOURCE: "Polished Surfaces and Difficult Pastorals," in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, sec. 7, p. 24.

In the following excerpt, Richman reviews House of Light and finds it to be an optimistic work concerned with the cycles of life.

Mary Oliver's work seems to inhabit an aesthetic domain unsullied by the bustle of human life. Indeed, her principal theme—"how to love this world," as she writes in "Spring," a poem in her new volume, House of Light—often demands a poetic landscape that, brimming though it may be with lilies, herons, pipefish and crows, is devoid of human beings. Ms. Oliver would appear to think that if you take people as your subject, you will be forced to concentrate on their many hardships and misfortunes. Does she lack patience for such things? No: she's just not their poet.

When she does write about human suffering or nature's less benevolent side, it's usually to show how the agony might be soothed by the world's splendors. When the poet hears the death cries of an owl's victims, she admits that "it stabs my heart." "But isn't it wonderful," she then remarks,

      what is happening
       in the branches of the pines;
        the owl's young,
          dressed in snowflakes,
      are starting to fatten—
        they beat their muscular wings,
          they dream of flying
            for another million years
      over the water,
        over the ferns,
      over the world's roughage
        as it bleeds and deepens.

Ms. Oliver's shift from the imagery of death to the owl's brood "dressed in snowflakes" isn't an attempt to shirk whatever is repugnant. It's an attempt to make death more bearable by focusing on the endlessly recommencing life that surrounds it.

In "Singapore," Ms. Oliver describes an encounter with a woman cleaning toilets in an airport washroom. Here too she tries to find something worth praising:

       I don't doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
       And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop
       and fly down to the river.
       This probably won't happen.
       But maybe it will.
       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 trees, and birds.

Such a life asks the poet to find "the light that can shine out of" it. Ms. Oliver's optimistic point is strengthened by the self-reflexive touch at the end, where she compares the implausibility of the woman's flying to the river with the implausibility of poems "filled with birds and trees." Both express the vainest of hopes—or do they?

Mary Oliver's poems are thoroughly convincing—as genuine, moving, and implausible as the first caressing breeze of spring.

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This section contains 456 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Robert Richman